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Natasha Estemirova (1959-2009), continued

Listen to Natasha Estemirova's interview with David Remnick, recorded in 2006 by PEN American Center
In the morning of July 15, 2009, Natasha Estemirova, Chechnya's leading human rights defender, was kidnapped on her way to work in Grozny and later found dead in a forested area along a main highway in neighboring Ingushetia. Her face was bruised, her hands tied and there were multiple close-range gun shot wounds in her head and chest. It is incomprehensible that the life of a woman who had been a beacon of moral clarity and compassion could be cut short in such a cruel, cold-blooded and despicable manner.

I imagine that Natasha would have been remarkable in any role due to the force of her mind and personality, but by becoming a human rights defender, this former history teacher became an agent of history herself. She was both a chronicler of Chechnya's past decade and an effective change-maker. Alongside her colleagues from Memorial and other local human rights activists, Natasha painstakingly gathered facts about how the second Russian-Chechen war and the subsequent post-war period devastated the lives of the people of Chechnya. She documented the numbers of victims, recorded every detail of their stories and identified the perpetrators wherever possible. Against an enforced information black-out, Memorial's reports are indispensable, the foundation of the historic record of a dark period. But Natasha knew that ultimately her job was to help people and bring about tangible change. She persistently fought for justice, all the way to the courtroom, where under her leadership Memorial lawyers strategically challenged flawed trials, especially the practice of fabricated criminal cases. She focused her advocacy on particular types of abuse or certain groups of perpetrators until, gradually, some of the worst human rights violations ceased. But then, as she herself grimly remarked, "if they drop one form of human rights violation, they quickly replace it with another ".

Natasha was passionate about human rights and guided in her work by unbending principles. She was relentless, but never aggressive or petulant. Instead, she attempted to calmly persuade interlocutors with facts and rational arguments drawn on the belief that human rights standards were non-negotiable. She used sober and carefully considered language with a soft-spoken delivery that sometimes veered into rapid fire. Her extraordinary intelligence and quick wit made her a daunting opponent to those who questioned her work, yet she was down-to-earth and completely approachable in person. A common theme in the worldwide coverage about Natasha's murder has been her courage. Natasha was indeed astonishingly brave. Her work brought frequent, concrete threats. More than once, she had to leave the country and lie low abroad for months at a time, but she always returned home and picked up right where she had left off. Natasha's courage was not reckless or impulsive, but deliberate and logically derived from her strong principles. She understood that speaking out about the most sensitive crimes and oppression was a moral imperative as well as a job that had to be done.

Human rights defenders are often called "tireless", and this was true about Natasha as well. She worked long and hard days with patience and discipline. If she was ever discouraged by the fact that most of the wrongs she uncovered were never righted, it didn't show in her output or work ethic. But tireless was more than an abstract quality in her. Natasha had a steely look about her, walking straight as an arrow and as if propelled by strong springs. After one particularly busy day on a visit to the US I was quietly wondering how, after running from one meeting to the next on tall and dainty heels, she could still stride with as much poise by the evening. She must have read my thoughts because she said "these shoes are cute, but not very comfortable. You know, they're not real leather. They don't sell leather shoes in Grozny now". Natasha was elegant, with a sharp, neat style that made her look ageless, quite unlike most Chechen women, who are glamorous when young but settle into a matronly mold well before their time. The many photographs that have accompanied the coverage of Natasha's death reminded me that she liked to wear muted green, the same hue as her striking eyes. Perhaps keeping up a polished appearance in the most grueling circumstances was part of Natasha's insistence that Chechnya should aspire to true normalcy, including the highest standards of justice, rule of law and public life.

Natasha was a consummate professional who applied fastidious standards to her work, and an expert not just on developments in Chechnya but on international human rights discourse. She had a unique talent for knowing exactly how to speak to different audiences to get their attention, their understanding and their support. She didn't tell them what they wanted to hear, but what they needed to hear. In a meeting several years ago with staff experts of the US Congress, she answered their welcome of "tell us, how can we help you?" by saying that fighting torture in Chechnya would be a lot easier if the US were not openly debating the permissibility of torture. Her hosts were surprised and even offended, but they stayed on for an important and substantial discussion. Natasha was a sophisticated observer of the dynamics unfolding in contemporary Chechnya and always right at the cutting edge of human rights work, discovering new and hidden abusive practices and bringing them to the world's attention. Her dogged pursuit of the truth and unceasing criticism of law-breaking by the authorities, this refusal to give up and give in, most likely led to her death.

Natasha Estemirova, a woman of courage, backbone and self-respect, who took the unforgiveable liberty of speaking truth to power, had become persona non grata in contemporary Chechnya, a square peg for a round hole. There was no longer any room for someone like her. Her truth-telling, amplified to a global volume by the many foreign correspondents relying on her for information, put the lie to the Chechen leadership's version of a happy, peaceful and harmonious Chechnya. The very way she lead her life and voiced her beliefs must have been an affront to those in power: an outspoken, independent woman who could neither be co-opted nor cowed, who refused publicly and pointedly to put on the headscarf that has become compulsory for women in Chechen schools, universities and public buildings. Indeed, she astutely analyzed the enforced headscarves policy as no revival of tradition but an instrument of dictatorship aimed at subduing one part of the population and denounced it on local television. According to eyewitnesses and her own accounts, this "defiance" of hers, however truthful and rational it was, met with the exasperated fury of Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov. She was ordered to personal meetings with him, during which he hurled abuse at her and threatened to harm her if she didn't quit.

Since Natasha struggled for a decade to solve crimes and bring perpetrators to justice, anything short of a thorough, honest investigation of her death and a properly conducted trial resulting in the conviction of her killers would be unacceptable. Russian president Medvedev's fast and concerned response to her death has been interpreted as an encouraging signal by some of her colleagues. But too often, similar murders in Russia have been left unsolved, trials botched, killers on the run and justice denied. Natasha used to be adamant that the Russian state can and must uphold its laws and protects its citizens. After failing to protect her, let alone appreciate her work, in life, Russia has one last chance to do right by one of its most committed citizens, by bringing her murderers to justice.

Parallels between Natasha's fate and those of other murdered Russian journalists and human rights defenders have been pointed out, especially that of her friend and close collaborator Anna Politkovskaya. After Politkovskaya's death, Natasha said that if the killers had planned to silence Politkovskaya, they had failed: Novaya Gazeta would from then on publish information reported directly by Memorial in the very space where Politkovskaya's articles used to be.
Through this, and by forging relationships with international media and global human rights organizations, Natasha and her colleagues made sure that the flow of accurate and critical information from Chechnya did not cease. Today, however, it seems more likely than ever that the documentation and dissemination of human rights violations will come to an end. Three days after Natasha's death, Memorial decided to suspend its activities in Chechnya for the safety of their staff. Other local human rights organizations have long been made to understand that the most egregious abuse and controversial matters are off-limits to them. And yet, while nobody could replace Natasha, with her formidable skills and courage, we must hope that others will try to fill her shoes by and by, even if this seems near impossible now: young journalists and activists whose names are not known yet; or fellow human rights defenders who have been working alongside Natasha for years and will step up in their own name. If so, we must more than ever give them our full support.





The Chechnya Advocacy Network was formed out of deep concern about the alarming situation in Chechnya and the plight of Chechen refugees all over the world. We strive to raise awareness about the ongoing conflict, particularly its human dimension, advocate for a more engaged international response and work to develop adequate responses to the humanitarian crisis. We are neither pro-Chechen nor pro-Russian, but supportive of solutions that promise the best possible outcome for the people of Chechnya and the North Caucasus. As an open, non-partisan initiative we welcome everyone who shares these goals with us.

© Copyright 2004, Zachary Hutchinson
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