Natalia Estemirova and the Price of Courage

Thumbnail image for estmirova071509.jpgThe following is a rant with little editing or consideration.

No sooner had the news media reported on her abrupt kidnapping, did we hear of the discovery of the journalist and human rights advocate Natalia Estemirova’s body.  I am told that the body was found with bullet wounds to the head and chest on a roadside outside of Nazran, Ingushetia, the neighboring region to Chechnya.

Estemirova was a pioneer journalist and member of the beleagured NGO Memorial, and those who worked with her are passionate in describing her commitment, courage, and vital importance as one of the last people still carrying on with the important work of documenting human rights abuses by both the state and paramilitary bodies against the civilian population of Chechnya.  Her sudden kidnapping and murder is a most vile act, one that is almost unspeakable in its hideous brutality.  Yet it is also a murder that we should not consider in isolation.  There is a long history of tolerated attacks against journalists and human rights activists, and a climate for impunity and rule of law that holds no one accountable for this kind of crime.  The message is clear and not undesirable for some elements of the government:  those of courage who challenge the status quo may find themselves paying a high price.

Hearing this news, one may recall with acid-mouthed disgust the murderof the prominent human rights attorney Stanlislav Markelov, who wasshot dead on a snowy Moscow sidewalk, most likely in connection withhis work in Chechnya.  The more appropriate memory is of course AnnaPolitkovskaya.  On Oct. 5, 2007 Natalia Estemirova was awarded theinaugural Anna Politkovskaya journalism award for her investigativereporting on human rights, and the two had maintained a closefriendship.  Here is a comment from Estemirova’s 2007 interview withRFE/RL after winning the prize:

“We have a lot of problems right now, most of allwith people who have found themselves in very difficult situations,”Estemirova says. “In Chechnya, there is a big problem with fabricatedcriminal cases and many young Chechen men are in prison in Russia underdifficult conditions. Can you imagine, since 2000 the authorities havebeen stirring things up so anybody with power thinks they can just beatChechens. Now there is a situation where many of them are imprisonedfor nothing, for crimes that were committed by others, crimes that theyhad no relation to. Now these cases need to be reexamined. This is workthat needs to be done by defense attorneys, and this work needs to bepaid for. This is what I want to spend this prize on.”

When Markelov was murdered, it took President Dmitry Medvedev a full nine days to give a response, and when he did it was out of the side of his mouth.  Putin never said a word publicly about Markelov, but dismissed the murder of Politkovskaya, which took place on his birthday, by criticizing her as an insignificant journalist whose work meant nothing in the eyes of the government.

Considering that U.S. President Barack Obama just left Russia smiling and willing to believe in a reset of relations, while a Russian delegation then flew to Italy to play Summit games and act like a world leading power, my question is how long are we going to wait for the Kremlin to condemn and act upon this horrible murder?  How much longer before we can connect the dots between all these events and see the reality of what is happening in Russia.

I recall a recent private meeting I held only a few weeks ago with a high ranking German official in the Bundestag.  He told me, with some exasperation, “Every time that Russia behaves like this and does something outrageous, we in Germany are always asking ourselves what we did wrong to cause it.”

Isn’t it about time that we stopped manufacturing excuses for these kinds of events?