MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Russian rights group where slain activist Natalia Estemirova worked said Monday it has suspended operations in Chechnya because of safety fears for her co-workers.
“We made this decision in conditions where the life, health and safety of our employees are being seriously threatened,” Memorial, one of the most prominent and oldest NGOs in Russia, said in a statement on its website www.memo.ru
Estemirova, who worked for Memorial in the Chechen capital of Grozny, was abducted on July 15 as she left her home, killed and her body dumped in neighboring Ingushetia.
Her murder, the latest in a series of killings of journalists and human rights defenders in Russia, has drawn international condemnation.
“We closed the office both for safety, and as a form of protest to attract attention from the regional and federal authorities,” Shakhman Akbulatov, head of Memorial’s Grozny office, told Reuters.
Memorial will continue tracking human rights abuses in nearby Ingushetia, spokeswoman Yulia Klimova said.
Akbulatov said a telegram sent to him Friday by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, promising a thorough investigation and the conviction of her killers, gave “some hope” but real action was still needed.
A spokesman for Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has condemned the murder and promised to find those responsible, said Monday a Moscow court had accepted a lawsuit from Kadyrov against Memorial head Oleg Orlov for libel after the group’s chairman blamed Kadyrov for Estemirova’s death.
Memorial said Monday they had not yet received any documents or information pertaining to the suit.
Medvedev said allegations Kadyrov was behind her death were “primitive” and clearly aimed against Russian authorities.
Opponents accuse Kadyrov of massive rights violations in Chechnya, the scene of two separatist wars with Russia in the 1990s, and of tolerating no independent voices in the region. Kadyrov rejects the charges.
Relative calm has been restored in Chechnya. But violence regularly spills over into the mainly Muslim regions of Ingushetia and Dagestan next door, where tough official methods, deep-rooted corruption and poverty push many young people to join the rebels.
Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman