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Analysis & Opinion
29.09.09 In Pursuit Of Honor
Blog by Andrei Zolotov, Jr.

When Oleg Orlov, the director of the human rights group Memorial, publically blamed the Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov for the murder of Natalia Estemirova, he was not voicing a particularly outlandish opinion. After a string of murders of critics of the Chechen regime, including the deaths of Estemirova’s friends and colleagues Anna Politkovskaya (murdered in October of 2006) and Stanislav Markelov (shot in January this year), Orlov’s revelations that Kadyrov had “personally threatened her in a private conversation” did not come out of the blue.

“I know,” said Orlov shortly after the murder, “I'm sure who is guilty of the murder of Natasha Estemirova. We all know this man. His name is Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of the Chechen Republic.”

That was too much for Kadyrov. He immediately rang Orlov to bawl him out (or “express condolences,” as the press release on his Web site has it), telling him that since he was “not a prosecutor or a judge,” the allegations were “not ethical, look very strange, and are offensive in nature.” Then he promptly announced that he would “exercise his rights” and sue for defamation.

Kadyrov kept his word, and the resulting hearing opened in Moscow’s Tverskoi District Court on September 25. The Chechen president is seeking some ten million rubles ($330,000) for damages to his “honor, dignity and business reputation,” which is how the Russian Civil Code describes defamation.

The case has not been straightforward. Kadyrov had to bring a civil case against Orlov after the Prosecutors’ Office announced that it would not bring criminal charges against him. Then, Andrei Krasnenkov, the lawyer representing Kadyrov in court, opened Friday’s hearing with an apparent offer of conciliation. If Orlov apologized and Memorial posted a refutation of the “I am sure who is guiltily…” statement, Kadyrov would drop the charges.

Unsurprisingly, Orlov’s attorney, Anna Stavitskaya, rejected the offer on the grounds that it would amount to caving into Kadyrov’s claim with no mutual concession. “I don’t see where there is a settlement agreement in this,” she told the court. Indeed, Orlov’s legal team seems to be relishing the fight. In his own statement to the court, Orlov not only refused to retract his words, he insisted that he had “every reason to pronounce them.”

Orlov insists that when he spoke about Kadyrov’s guilt, he was not talking about involvement in the actual crime. The entire defense strategy comes down to the argument that Kadyrov has presided over the creation of a situation in Chechnya where law enforcement and security bodies can act with impunity; and that impunity made murders like Estemirova’s possible. Kadyrov’s guilt is not criminal, said Orlov, but “political.”

The defense began by calling several expert witnesses to testify about Kadyrov’s own strained relations with Estemirova (particularly the meeting at which Orlov claims Kadyrov “personally threatened her”), Orlov’s claim that normal human rights work in the republic is impossible, and, most importantly, on the situation of impunity. The cumulative effect is to turn the tables between the prosecution and the defense. “One could extrapolate that it was not Orlov on trial, but Kadyrov,” said Tanya Lokshina, a representative of Human Rights Watch who was one of the witnesses to testify on Friday. “At least, that’s what several people in the audience told me afterward.”

Strictly speaking, since this is a civil case, no one is on trial. But the defense team’s strategy of turning the hearing into a trial of Kadyrov’s competence – or “trying to start a discussion around the case, but not one of substance,” as Krasnenkov complained to the judge - has quite momentous implications. “If Orlov wins, it means the court acknowledges that he has a solid factual basis to make such assumptions,” said Lokshina. “That would be sort of a judicial/political condemnation of the way Kadyrov has ruled Chechnya.”

For all its appeal, the drama of the courtroom battle between Kadyrov and Orlov threatens to overshadow the real issue – the investigation of the murder of Natalia Estemirova. At the time, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made a show of ordering a team from the Investigative Committee of the Federal Persecutor’s Office to take charge of the case. Two and half months since the July 15 killing, no arrests have been made. The chief investigator recently asked for another two months to investigate, citing the reluctance of witnesses to cooperate.

Nonetheless, Lokshina, who has had consultations with the investigators, described their progress favorably. “My impression is that so far they have been doing a good job and they have been very conscientious, interrogating numerous witnesses and in particular looking into cases Estemirova was working on and linking the murder with her job,” she said. But that optimism is tempered with caution. Anna Politkovskaya’s colleagues at Novaya Gazeta were at first extremely pleased with the investigation into her murder, recalled Lokshina, but later became frustrated by apparent obstruction of the team’s progress.
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