UN experts offer help in investigating killings of rights defenders

21 July 2009
Natalia Estemirova

United Nations independent human rights experts today said that they stand ready to assist Russian authorities in carrying out an independent investigation into the recent string of murders of human rights lawyers, journalists and defenders, including the killing last week of Natalia Estemirova, a prominent activist looking into alleged rights abuses in Chechnya.

The seven experts acknowledged that Russia’s leaders have expressed outrage and have pledged that all necessary steps will be taken to apprehend and punish those behind the killing of Ms. Estemirova.

“However, these assurances will be worth little unless the authorities take steps that go beyond what has been done in the past, which has all too often led to a cycle of impunity,” they said in a press release issued in Geneva.

Ms. Estemirova, who worked for the non-governmental organization (NGO) Memorial, was kidnapped on 15 July near her home in the Chechen capital, Grozny, and her body was found in neighbouring Ingushetia later in the day with two bullet wounds to the head and chest.

The slain activist had worked for many years to promote human rights in the North Caucasus, having received numerous awards. Those included the Anna Politkovskaya Prize from the Nobel Women’s Initiative, which was named for the Russian journalist and outspoken human rights campaigner who was killed in 2006, with whom Ms. Estemirova had worked.

She had also worked alongside Stanislav Markelov, a human rights lawyer who was killed after having given a press conference in Moscow on 19 January.

“We offer our assistance to the Russian authorities in light of the failure to effectively and impartially investigate the killings and attacks on a number of human rights defenders in recent years and to prosecute and bring the perpetrators to justice,” the experts, who serve in an unpaid capacity, said.

Bringing an end to impunity would deter further violence and harassment against rights defenders, they added.

Last week, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called for a thorough and independent investigation into Ms. Estemirova’s killing.

Ms. Pillay welcomed the announcement that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has ordered a high-level investigation, urging authorities “to do all they can to ensure that the perpetrators are prosecuted and brought to justice.”

Ms. Estemirova’s death – the latest in a series of killings or attacks against rights activists, journalists and lawyers in the country – “sadly underlines once again the need for governments to do much more to protect human rights defenders,” Ms. Pillay said.

For his part, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he is appalled and saddened by Ms. Estemirova’s “heinous” killing, calling on authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice “to send a strong and unambiguous message that the targeting of human rights will not be tolerated,” according to a statement issued by his spokesperson.

“The Secretary-General expresses his solidarity with human rights defenders around the world who work courageously and selflessly each and every day, in defense of basic rights and freedoms,” it added.

The Russian Government, the seven rights experts stressed today, is responsible under international human rights law to ensure the protection of human rights defenders “against any violence, threats, retaliation, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a result of their human rights work.”

The seven experts behind today’s press release are: Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; Frank La Rue, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Manfred Nowak, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; Margaret Sekaggya, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Leandro Despouy, Special Rappporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers; Yakin Ertürk, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences; and Santiago Corcuera Cabezut, Chairperson-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.


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