- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 16, 2009

MOSCOW | A well-known Russian rights activist was found slain execution-style Wednesday, hours after being kidnapped in Chechnya - the latest in a series of brazen killings targeting critics of the Kremlin’s violent policies in the war-torn North Caucasus.

The daylight slaying of Natalya Estemirova follows the killings in recent years of reporters, lawyers and activists, and appeared to indicate that Russia remains a place where political killings are committed with impunity.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev reacted quickly to the killing - in contrast to other recent killings - expressing his condolences, and ordering the country’s top investigative official “to take all necessary measures.” His spokeswoman, Natalya Timakova, said Ms. Estemirova’s killing appeared to be related to her work.

The slaying came the same day as the release of a report she helped do research that concluded there was enough evidence to demand that Russian officials, including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, be called to account for crimes committed on their watch.

“She documented the most horrendous violations, mass executions,” said Tatyana Lokshina, a Moscow researcher with the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.

“She has done things no one else dared to do,” she said.

Ms. Estemirova, a 50-year-old single mother, was reported kidnapped Wednesday morning. The prominent rights organization she worked for, Memorial, made the report. Its chairman, Oleg Orlov, said four men forced her into a car in the Chechen capital, Grozny, where she lived. He said witnesses heard her yell that she was being abducted.

About nine hours later, her body was found on a roadside in Ingushetia, which borders Chechnya to the west. There were two close-range bullet wounds in her head, according to Ingush Interior Ministry spokeswoman Madina Khadziyeva.

Ms. Estemirova had collected evidence of rights abuses in Chechnya since the start of the second war there in 1999. She was a key researcher for a recent Human Rights Watch report that accused Chechen authorities of burning more than two dozen houses in the past year to punish relatives of suspected rebels.

Mr. Orlov accused Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed president, Ramzan Kadyrov, of being behind the killing.

“Ramzan already threatened Natalya, insulted her, considered her his personal enemy,” he said. “Ramzan Kadyrov has made it impossible for rights activists to work in Chechnya.”

Ms. Estemirova also worked with the investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, another critic of Kremlin policies in the North Caucasus who was gunned down in her Moscow apartment building in 2006. And she aided Stanislav Markelov, a lawyer involved in Chechen rights abuse cases who was fatally shot on a Moscow street in January, along with an opposition newspaper reporter.

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