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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.

Tatiana Lokshina, of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch, returned Tuesday evening from a research trip to Chechnya, where she worked closely with Estemirova.

“We were working on absolutely outrageous cases — punitive houseburnings, abductions. We documented a striking case of a public execution carried out by the authorities,” she said. “These are immensely sensitive cases. Hardly anybody touches them.”

The public execution case could be what did it, according to Alexander Cherkasov, a colleague of Estemirova’s at Memorial. He too lay the blame with Kadyrov. “It’s Chechen officials, the Chechen leadership. Who else?”

The attacks on average Chechens tend to target families of suspected separatist insurgents, as violent anti-Kadyrov and anti-Moscow sentiment once again rises, according to Lokshina.

Moscow fought two bloody wars with Chechnya, from 1994 to 1996 and again starting in 1999. The mainly Muslim republic sought to secede from Russia in the wake of the Soviet Union’s fall, and the Kremlin fought hard to prevent what it saw as a potential domino effect of secession across its empire. Its tactics were brutal: The capital was bombed, tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers perished, disappearances and mass killings flourished. Chechen rebels responded with suicide bombings and mass hostage takings that reached all the way to Moscow.

Alongside its violent military campaign, the Kremlin sought to impose a political solution as well, installing a former rebel and chief mufti, Akhmad Kadyrov, as president. When he was assassinated in a bomb attack in May 2004, Vladimir Putin, then president, personally installed Kadyrov’s thuggish son as the republic’s next ruler.

Since then, Ramzan Kadyrov has ruled with a blank check, amassing untold wealth — in the form, partly, of fancy cars and an exotic zoo — and power in exchange for keeping the republic calm.

Now it looks like he is not keeping up his part of the deal.

“During the past month, the level of human rights abuses has been staggering,” Lokshina said. “It seems that the law enforcement and security agencies under the control of President Kadyrov are attempting to suppress an insurgency which is suddenly on the rise.” That is happening in part, she says, because of the human rights abuses continually perpetrated by the regime.

With the murder of Estemirova, there is one less voice to expose those abuses.

In October 2007, Estemirova was awarded the inaugural prize to honor the life of Politkovskaya, awarded by RAW in WAR (Reach All Women In War).

Accepting the award, she said: “Our task … is to uncover their deeds and to fight them. Anna was at the forefront of this work for many years. She is no more. Now it is up to us to continue her work.”

With each killing, that becomes less and less likely. And that, according to Memorial’s Orlov, is part of the plan.

“[Kadyrov’s regime] is doing this so Chechnya will be closed,” he said. “We were the only people who continue to say something. Everyone else is scared. We were the only ones, but apparently it was idiotic, because it ended in death.”

The question, as always, remains what is to be done? Orlov called on Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev to remove Kadyrov as leader. Judging by his brutal tactics, and his view of revenge as bloodsport, that may not be enough. It is high time the Kremlin deal with a monster of its own making. The question is: How?

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