Activist tells West not to forget Chechnya

The West must not forget the people of Chechnya, who remain victims of killings, torture and disappearances despite the winding down of more than 10 years of war in their homeland, a Chechen activist has said.

Natalya Estemirova, a journalist from the Chechen capital Grozny, who is in London to collect the first annual Anna Politkovskaya Award for women defenders of human rights in war, said she hoped the award would raise awareness.

"I hope that the fact of this award will help. I say: Chechnya is part of Europe. You cannot simply forget us," she said in an interview.

A group called Reach All Women in War (RAW in WAR) is launching the prize that is backed by at least six Nobel Peace Prize winners, in honour of Politkovskaya, a journalist and critic of President Vladimir Putin gunned down in Moscow last year.

Irish Nobel Peace laureate Mairead Corrigan-Maguire will present the award in London on Friday to Estemirova, a member of the Russian rights group Memorial which has four offices in Chechnya documenting abuses and providing legal aid to victims.

Chechnya's pro-independence forces have been mostly defeated after two wars since 1994 that left Grozny in ruins. The mountainous, mainly Muslim province on Russia's southern border is now controlled by a pro-Moscow president, Ramzan Kadyrov.

Rebel leaders have been killed and many former rebels have gone onto Kadyrov's payroll, joining an array of paramilitary police and security forces loyal to the 31-year-old leader.


However, Estemirova said the violence has continued unabated, with rival armed groups carrying out kidnappings and disappearances, and torturing prisoners to obtain confessions.

"Kidnappings are not rare. Disappearances of people after kidnappings are not rare. Killings are not rare," she said. "Now what is happening is the killing of Chechens by Chechens. This is the most dangerous of all, because it never ends."

Hundreds of young Chechen men have taken to the woods again this year to become fighters, in what Estemirova called a sign of hopeless desperation. In many cases, security forces come looking for their family members as a way of punishing them.

"The kids went into the forest with no hope at all -- not thinking there would be independence, which is impossible now. They went hoping for nothing, knowing that their families would be punished. It is simply suicide."

Memorial has teams of lawyers pursuing cases of Chechens who disappear into the jails of Kadyrov's security forces and Russian agencies. Prisoners are routinely tortured, she said.

She said, "People who have survived this have said 'I would have confessed to killing the emperor of China'."

Estemirova frequently worked with Politkovskaya, who reported from Chechnya for years when the war zone was off limits to most of the Russian and international media. Getting the truth out is hard and Russia's mainly pro-Kremlin media still rarely report from Chechnya beyond trips arranged by the authorities, Estemirova said.

"So many journalists say to me: We would write this. We want to write about this. But who would publish it?" she said. "At the start of this second war, the authorities announced that Russia would win this information war."

So was her friend Politkovskaya a casualty of that information war? Estemirova pauses and says: "No."

"That was not war. That was just murder. War is when both sides have weapons. When one side has weapons and the other side is totally defenceless, that is simply murder."

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