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By Stuart Williams and Olga Nedbayeva

MOSCOW (AFP) — A renowned rights activist in Russia's turbulent North Caucasus region was found murdered Wednesday hours after being abducted in Chechnya, horrifying fellow campaigners and the Kremlin.

Prize-winning activist Natalya Estemirova, 50, worked for the leading Russian rights group Memorial, which has exposed a string of abuses in the conflict-torn region.

Her corpse, "with firearms wounds to the head and chest," was found close to a highway in the region of Ingushetia that neighbours Chechnya, said the investigative committee of Russian prosecutors.

Her murder was the latest in a series of killings of rights defenders and investigative journalists in Russia that have shocked the world, most notably the 2006 killing of reporter Anna Politkovskaya.

"I have no doubt that this murder is linked to the professional activities of Natalya," Tatyana Lokshina of Human Rights Watch told AFP. "It's a horrific tragedy. The situation in Chechnya is out of control."

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev "expressed indignation at this murder" and ordered a top-level investigation, Kremlin spokeswoman Natalya Timakova said, quoted by Russian news agencies.

The swift Kremlin reaction contrasted with sluggish responses to previous killings of activists.

Amnesty International said the murder was "a consequence of the impunity that has been allowed to persist by the Russian and Chechen authorities."

The Memorial rights group said Estemirova was bundled into a vehicle near her house in Grozny earlier Wednesday, shouting that she was being kidnapped.

An unknown woman had followed her from her building to the place where she was kidnapped, said the group.

Estemirova was one of the main Caucasus-based activists for Memorial, which is acclaimed worldwide for its work exposing rights abuses in the region.

In 2007 the Nobel Women's Initiative, a group established by female Nobel Peace Prize laureates, awarded her the Anna Politkovskaya prize -- named after the murdered journalist.

The Swedish parliament honoured her with the "Right to Existence Prize" and she received the Robert Schuman Medal from the European parliament.

The Chechen authorities had expressed dissatisfaction with her work more than once, said Memorial, although it gave no indication of who might be behind her abduction and murder.

Alexander Cherkassov, a Caucasus expert from Memorial, told AFP that Estemirova most recently upset local officials by accusing security forces of the arbitrary killing of an alleged rebel on July 7.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, whose country holds the European Union's rotating presidency, denounced the murder.

"We condemn that brutal act and call for the authorities to try to establish who is responsible and take the action that is called for," said Bildt.

The 47-nation Council of Europe called it "a horrible and cowardly crime".
Paris-based press rights groups Reporters Without Borders (RSF) expressed "shock and grief".

"We salute the exemplary courage and commitment of this human rights activist and former journalist, we share the grief of her friends and family and we join them in honouring her memory," said the RSF statement.

Russia earlier this year ended a 10-year "counter-terrorism" operation in Chechnya, a mainly Muslim region riven by two separatist wars since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

It is now led by pro-Kremlin strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, whose regime has been criticised for human rights abuses.
Kadyrov condemned the "inhuman" murder of Estemirova and pledged to personally oversee the investigation, the RIA Novosti news agency reported late Wednesday.

But Chechnya and other parts of the Russian Caucasus remain the site of a deadly insurgency by Islamist militants against the pro-Kremlin local authorities, who in turn have been accused of abuses in fighting the rebels.

Security forces are being killed in clashes with militants on a near-daily basis, and last week 10 Chechen police officers were killed in an ambush in Ingushetia.

"This horrific crime (the murder of Estemirova) has taken place when we are being told that the war is over, that order and law is reigning in Kadyrov's Chechnya," said rights activist Lev Ponomarev.

Earlier this month, Memorial and Human Rights Watch issued a hard-hitting report accusing Chechen security forces of punishing families of alleged militants by burning down their homes.


Top Russian activist murdered in Ingushetia (AFP)

Natalia Estemirova (index.org.ru)

Опубликовал administrator, 16-07-2009, 17:34. Просмотров: 1364
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