Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Chechnya: Rights workers murdered amid atmosphere of fear

Copyright (c) 2009. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

Rights Activist, Husband Found Dead In Chechnya

RFE/RL -- Two more human rights workers have been murdered in Chechnya . Zarema Sadulayeva, the head of a charity for victims of the Chechen wars, has been found shot dead, along with her husband, Alik Dzhabrailov.

The murders come less than a month after another prominent Chechen rights activist, Natalya Estemirova, was killed.

Police found the bodies of Sadulayeva and Dzhabrailov on August 11 in the trunk of a car in a suburb of Grozny. Both had been shot dead after being abducted from the office of their charity in the capital on August 10.

Sadulayeva headed a Russian NGO, Save the Generations, which provided medical and psychological help to young victims of the fighting in Chechnya. Among those it helps are children who lost limbs during the region's separatist struggle against Moscow.

Her husband shared her work. They had married recently, after he had been jailed for four years on charges of links to armed separatist groups.

Not Politically Active

Human rights representatives who knew the two young people -- both were in their mid-20s -- say they were not politically active.

“There was no political element [to their work],” said Lyudmila Alekseyeva of the Moscow Helsinki rights group. “They just helped disabled children and children from poor families.”

The killings were condemned by Human Rights Watch (HRW). The group's deputy chief in Moscow, Tatyana Lokshina, called the murders "a horrendous crime."

The chief of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Lyudmila Alekseyeva, said she holds Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov responsible for the murders since he is obliged to provide safety for the republic's citizens.

The killings come less than a month after the murder of one of Chechnya’s most prominent rights activists, Natalya Estemirova, under similar circumstances.

In both cases, the victims were bundled into cars by unidentified men, taken to remote locations, and shot to death.

The killings underline the climate of fear that reigns in Chechnya, where a Moscow-backed government is in power but there is no security against unidentified armed groups, including those suspected of links to the government itself.

"[The couple’s abductors] introduced themselves as members of security forces," Aleksandr Cherkasov, a leading member of the Russian human rights organization Memorial, told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "When commenting on this kidnapping, Chechen Interior Ministry officials said that according to their information Sadulayeva and Dzhabrailov got in the car voluntarily. Were they supposed to start shooting at five armed men who came after them?"

He adds that the pattern of abduction and killing has become commonplace in Chechnya in recent years.

"Thousands of people, including absolutely innocent people, have been kidnapped and killed in this fashion throughout the years of the second Chechen war," he says.

Atmosphere Of Fear

The Memorial group stopped its work in Chechnya after the killing of Estemirova, who was the head of the organization’s branch there.

Rights activists blame Kadyrov for contributing to the atmosphere of fear that prevails in the republic.

His strong-arm tactics, including reprisals against the families of suspected separatist fighters, have helped to complete Moscow’s rollback of rebel forces with the second Chechen war.

But his intolerance of criticism, combined with an apparent disinterest in solving the murders of critics, has opened him to charges of ordering extrajudicial killings of opponents.

Chechen exiles have been gunned down in foreign countries, some have been shot in Moscow, and others killed in Chechnya. Virtually none of the assassination cases have been solved.

Following Estemirova’s murder, Memorial’s chairman Oleg Orlov charged the Chechen president with being responsible, irrespective of who ordered the crime.

Kadyrov has denied any involvement. However, his derogatory remarks about Estemirova following her death have only added to the controversy over her murder.

No Immunity

In an interview with RFE/RL on August 8, Kadyrov said Estemirova “never had any honor or sense of shame” and “would say stupid things.” Estemirova had publicly accused Kadyrov’s administration of rampant human rights abuses.

Sadulayeva and Dzhabrailov were not prominent voices like Estemirova. Like most people working in public positions, they did not risk speaking out on public issues, whatever their private opinions might be.

But this does not seem to have guaranteed them any kind of immunity in a place where armed men kidnap in broad daylight without masks and yet their identity is never learned.

Kheda Saratova, a Grozny-based rights activist, told The Associated Press that three of the abductors were clad in military fatigues and two others were wearing civilian clothes. After taking Sadulayeva and her husband away, they returned to their office to pick up her cell phone and seize Sadulayeva's car.