DNA shows flawed probe in Chechen activist death

July 14, 2011 - 10:14 AM
Russia Activist Killed

FILE - In this Sept. 15, 2007 file photo Natalya Estemirova, a human rights activist, seen in the Chechen capital, Grozny, southern Russia. Estemirova was kidnapped and killed on July 15, 2009, and Russian investigators claimed her killer was an Islamic militant who died four months later. Her colleagues claimed Thursday, July 14, 2011, that their independent investigation disproved the Islamist's involvement. (AP Photo/Musa Sadulayev, file)

MOSCOW (AP) — DNA evidence shows that two men charged with the fatal shooting of a rights activist in Chechnya did not commit the crime, her former colleagues said Thursday.

In addition, one of the suspects had actually fled the Russian republic shortly before the shooting, they said.

Natalya Estemirova, who collected evidence of rights abuses by security forces in Chechyna, was abducted on July 15, 2009 in the Chechen capital, Grozny. Her body, shot several times, was found the same day in a neighboring province.

Russian investigators said last year that two brothers who were members of an Islamist militant group killed Estemirova, who had implicated them in kidnappings of Chechen civilians.

One brother, Alkhazur Bashayev, was killed by federal forces four months after the killing. Another, Anzor Bashayev, fled to France and was granted political asylum. French authorities refused to extradite him in response to numerous requests from Russia, where he was charged with Estemirova's murder.

Memorial, the rights group Estemirova worked with, said it had obtained a DNA sample from Anzor Bashayev. The sample showed that neither he nor his brother had DNA matching samples of sweat found on Estemirova's clothes.

"There is no serious proof to really consider the version in which Alkhazur Bashayev is the main suspect in the killing of Natalya Estemirova," the group's leader, Oleg Orlov, said.

Shortly after the killing, Russian authorities said that they were investigating whether several police officers were involved in the killing. Estemirovaahad ccused the officers of publicly executing a man whose relatives were suspected militants.

Chechnya was ravaged by two wars between separatists and Moscow that started in 1994. Although major fighting between Chechen rebels and federal troops has all but ended, sporadic hit-and-run attacks and suicide bombings have continued.

Orlov said that Chechnya's leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a former Islamist militant who switched sides and enjoys Kremlin support, should be held accountable for Estemirova's murder.

Kadyrov is "directly responsible for the killing," Orlov said, "at least because an atmosphere of impunity and lawlessness has been created in the Chechen Republic."

The attorney for Estemirova's family, Roman Karpinsky, said that he has been denied access to investigation documents, including the testimony of the Bashayevs' cousin, Rizvan, who investigators said told them where to find the murder weapon and a fake police ID with Alkhazur Bashayev's photo.

Rizvan Bashayev has been in custody since Nov. 2009 and was charged with being a militant

Orlov's colleague, Svetlana Gannushkina, claimed authorities had deliberately attempted to mislead the public.

"What is going on is a fabrication of an investigation, not an investigation," she said. "But we cannot blame anybody without any proof."

Kadyrov, who had harshly criticized Estemirova's work, won two libel suits against Memorial but lost a recent criminal prosecution against Orlov for slander.

Memorial and other rights groups have accused Kadyrov's paramilitaries of involvement in abductions and extra-judicial killings of civilians and those suspected of ties of Islamic separatists.