MOSCOW – The European Court of Human Rights on Tuesday criticized the Russian government for failing to investigate the kidnapping and murder ten years ago of one of the country’s most prominent human rights defenders , Natalya Estemirova.
The court ruled that the Russian authorities had not thoroughly investigated the murder and pointed to inconsistencies in the evidence record which “led to doubts about the effectiveness of the investigation.” He awarded Ms. Estemirova’s relatives 20,000 euros, or approximately 23,600 dollars, in damages.
But the court also ruled that the authorities could not be held directly responsible for the murder.
The case had become emblematic of the brutal methods and the lack of responsibility of the Russian security services in the repression of an Islamist insurgency in Chechnya which coincided with the first years of the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Rights groups say Russia’s tactics, never officially recognized by the government, have focused on illegal policies of enforcing “collective accountability,” in which family members of insurgents have been targeted or their houses set on fire to force the combatants to surrender.
Ms Estemirova, a star researcher at Memorial, an advocacy group, has documented victims of kidnappings, extrajudicial killings and house fires in Chechnya for years. She was kidnapped from a sidewalk in Grozny, the Chechen capital, in July 2009, and her bullet-riddled body was later found in a field.
“She died just like the people she was trying to help,” said Tanya Lokshina, associate director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch.
“I kept thinking about it for many years, and I think about it now, how she felt when she was dragged into that car and a bag put over her head,” Ms. Lokshina said. “She became the character of one of her own stories, the stories she had been telling for years, and she died like many of them.”
Years of inconclusive investigations followed, as is often the case with politically-painted murders in Russia. Rights groups have singled out Russian security forces that Ms Estemirova implicated in abuses.
Government investigators blamed the insurgents, saying they intended to embarrass the Chechen regional government headed by Ramzan A. Kadyrov, himself a former insurgent whose family had switched to the government side. The investigative committee, a Russian law enforcement agency, did not respond to a request for comment on the case on Tuesday.
The European Court of Human Rights, based in Strasbourg, France, is a place of last resort for rights cases in Russia. The Russian government is bound by treaty to observe its decisions, as part of an early post-Soviet effort to integrate Russia into the larger European human rights architecture.
Estemirova v. Russia was one of the most high-profile cases to go to court in years, and Tuesday’s ruling represented partial justification for Ms Estemirova’s sister, Svetlana Estemirova, who filed the appeal in 2011.
Svetlana Estemirova had asked the court to find that the Russian security services had violated her sister’s right to life under an article of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The court has ruled on several occasions against the Russian government, notably in multiple cases of enforced disappearances in Chechnya.
In the ultimately successful Russian campaign to pacify an Islamist uprising in Chechnya during the region’s second of two post-Soviet wars, which began in 1999, targeting family members of fighters became a Russian counterinsurgency tactic. brand. US commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, by contrast, said they did not deliberately target family members.
Rights groups estimate that around 5,000 people disappeared during Russian operations and have documented the practice of punitive house fires and the kidnapping of family members to force the surrender of insurgent relatives.
Ms Estemirova was a central witness at the height of this campaign in the 2000s, traveling to Chechen villages to collect and publish accounts of enforced disappearances and other abuses.
“It is disappointing that the decision is only partial,” Human Rights Watch’s Ms. Lokshina said of the court’s decision not to directly involve the security forces in the killing. But, she added, “it always gives a bit of justice and some closure to Natalya’s parents and colleagues.”