By Stuart Williams (AFP) – Jul 16, 2009
MOSCOW — President Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday praised murdered rights activist Natalya Estemirova for exposing uncomfortable truths, amid growing international pressure on the Kremlin to swiftly find her killers.
Medvedev's warm tribute to Estemirova -- found dead Wednesday in the volatile Northern Caucasus -- contrasted with the grudging description of slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya by his predecessor Vladimir Putin in 2006.
"She did very useful things. She spoke the truth and openly, sometimes toughly described some processes that happen in this country," Medvedev said at a news conference in Munich alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"That is the value of a rights activist. Even if these things are not pleasant and uncomfortable for the authorities."
Estemirova, 50, was found dead Wednesday afternoon with gunshot wounds to the head and chest hours after she was seen being bundled into a car outside her home in the Chechen capital Grozny that same morning.
A small funeral ceremony took place in the centre of Grozny and she was to be buried in her home village of Ishkhoi-Urt in Chechnya, Russian news agencies said.
Memorial, the acclaimed rights group for whom Estemirova worked, said the pro-Kremlin Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov bore responsibility for the murder, irrespective of who ordered the killing.
"I know, I am sure who is guilty of Natalya Estemirova's murder, we all know him -- his name is Ramzan Kadyrov," said Memorial's head Oleg Orlov.
Kadyrov had "threatened Natalya, insulted her and considered her a personal enemy.
"We do not know if he gave the order himself or his close associates did so to please their boss," Orlov said.
But Kadyrov voiced outrage over the killing of a "helpless woman" and pledged to oversee the investigation.
Kadyrov is a hugely controversial figure, praised by the Kremlin for restoring some stability to Chechnya but hated by rights activists, who accuse him of letting a personal militia carry out kidnappings and torture.
Chechnya rights ombudsman Nudri Nukhazhiyev expressed outrage at Orlov's accusations, saying his office intended to file a complaint with prosecutors.
A succession of Western states and rights groups urged the authorities to bring those responsible to justice, something Russia has failed to do in similar recent cases.
Medvedev told reporters in Germany that "such a crime must not go unpunished."
He added: "I am sure the murderers will be caught" and should be punished in accordance with the law. Merkel concurred meanwhile that "everything must be done to catch the killer."
In Geneva, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay welcomed the Russian investigation but stressed that authorities should "do all they can to ensure that the perpetrators are prosecuted and brought to justice."
US National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer said "such a heinous crime sends a chilling signal to Russian civil society" and called on Moscow to show that such lawlessness would not be tolerated.
The murder "illustrates the tragic deterioration of security and the rule of law in the North Caucasus over the last several months," he added.
Britain's Europe Minister Glenys Kinnock urged the Russian authorities to carry out a "full and thorough" investigation into the murder.
Memorial said Estemirova had particularly angered the local authorities by accusing security forces of carrying out an extra-judicial execution of an alleged rebel in public in front of his village on July 7.
Rights activists said her death was a major blow for efforts to uncover the truth about events in the Northern Caucasus.
"She (Estemirova) was someone very close to all of us, without her it is very difficult to imagine our future work," Allison Gill, director of Human Rights Watch in Moscow told AFP.
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.
Russia has still failed to solve the murder of Politkovskaya as well as the January killing of young journalist Anastasia Baburova and human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov who were gunned down in central Moscow.
Putin notoriously described Politkovskaya's murder in 2006 as an "unacceptable crime that cannot go unpunished" but also commented that her "ability to influence political life in Russia was extremely insignificant."
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