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Did Chechnya's leader just kill this woman?

After the shocking murder of Natalia Estemirova, her colleagues finger Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

Chechen journalist and activist Natalia Estemirova poses at the Front Line Club in London, Oct. 4, 2007. She was killed July 15, 2009. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

MOSCOW — Natalia Estemirova was an increasingly rare breed in Russia. Committed to exposing human rights abuses committed by the ruthless leadership in Chechnya, she lived and worked tirelessly in the republic’s capital.

Today she was found dead.

Four men abducted Estemirova, the leading Russian human rights worker in the troubled Caucasus region, as she left her home in Grozny at about 8.30 a.m. Wednesday, July 15. Members of her organization, Memorial, started a public outcry. In the midst of it, her body was found with two gun shots to the head, execution style. Her lifeless body was dumped in Ingushetia, a neighboring republic.

Could this be the tipping point?

In previous such murders — and there have been many — the finger-pointing has been somewhat wobbly. The regime of Ramzan Kadyrov, the 32-year-old leader who runs Chechnya as his own personal fiefdom, has managed to shrug off accusations that it is somehow involved in the spate of killings that have seen Kadyrov’s opponents fall dead one by one, in Chechnya, in Moscow, and abroad.

Some have remained silent, likely fearing revenge. For Memorial, there is nothing more to fear.

Oleg Orlov, the chairman of Memorial, Russia’s preeminent human rights group, said Kadyrov has blood on his hands, and he plans on telling the world.

“Ramzan Kadyrov is personally responsible, not only because he leads Chechnya,” Orlov said, reacting more with raging anger than sadness over the death of his colleague. “He personally threatened Natalia, told her that her hands would be covered in blood and that he destroys bad people.” That threat came, he said, when Kadyrov dismissed Estemirova as head of the Grozny Human Rights Public Council early last year.

“We didn’t say this before because we were scared for her safety. Now we can say it. We have no doubt that her killing was ordered by Ramzan Kadyrov.”

Kadyrov has not responded to accusations that he was involved. Maybe he’ll come up with a defense like the one he gave when denying involvement in the October 2006 murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, with whom Estemirova often worked: “I do not kill women and have never killed women.”

Kadyrov has been accused of involvement in many high-profile killings. Politkovskaya’s murder was followed by the 2008 attack on Ruslan Yamadayev, a member of a powerful Chechen clan opposed to Kadyrov. He was shot dead in front of the British Embassy in central Moscow during rush hour. His brother was killed in March this year, slain by a gunman as he walked to his car in a posh Dubai apartment complex. In perhaps the most brazen killing, Umar Israilov, a former Kadyrov bodyguard who won political asylum in Austria after publicly accusing Kadyrov of human rights abuses, was killed by a carload of assassins in central Vienna in January after a midday run to a grocery shop.

But these are not the killings Estemirova worked to expose. She devoted her life to the everyday revenge killings and reprisal attacks that her research showed were carried out by the Kadyrov regime against average residents of Chechnya.