Mourners ask: ‘Who will answer for this? Who will be next?’

The 50-year-old human rights activist was kidnapped early on Wednesday as she left her house in the Chechen capital for work. Neighbours saw four men bundle her into a car. “I’m being kidnapped,” she yelled as she was spirited away. Hours later, her body was discovered in the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia, with bullet wounds to her head and chest.

The head of Memorial, the rights group for whom she worked, was categorical about who was to blame for her death. “The name of the person responsible is Ramzan Kadyrov, and he is the President of Chechnya,” Oleg Orlov said.

Ms Estemirova was a staunch critic of the Chechen President, as her previously unpublished piece obtained by The Independent shows. “No one dares to object to anything Kadyrov says or does, just as no one dared to object to Stalin’s words or deeds in the former Soviet Union,” she lamented.

But Ms Estemirova dared ? and became another statistic in the long list of journalists and activists murdered in Russia in the past few years. “A terror campaign is being conducted in Russia ? terror against people who dare say things that are uncomfortable and unpleasant for the authorities, who talk about the crimes of those in power,” said Mr Orlov.

Mr Kadyrov, a former rebel fighter who was then co-opted by Moscow to lead the region, has been strongly criticised over his methods of rule. Critics accuse his militias of gross violations of human rights, including kidnappings and torture. “Kadyrov personally hated Natalya; he had insulted and threatened her,” Mr Orlov said, adding that she had been told by those close to the Chechen President that she should change her style of work, as it was putting her in danger.

A spokesman for Mr Kadyrov said yesterday that the President would personally oversee an investigation into the murder, despite that fact that most activists suspect his security forces of having responsibility for it.

Ms Estemirova was killed on the same day as a human rights report that she helped research was published, which concluded that there was enough evidence to demand that Russian officials, including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, be called to account for crimes committed on their watch.

Those who knew the single mother described her as a courageous individual who never lost her sense of humour and who was devoted to fighting for justice in the North Caucasus.

“She always knew the risks she was subjecting herself to and was extremely worried for the safety of her daughter,” said Mari Bastashevski, a Danish photojournalist who was working with her on a project about abductions in the region.

It is a cruel irony that Ms Estemirova, who specialised in researching and bringing to light cases of kidnapping and extrajudicial murder, should fall victim to exactly that crime.

Others who have shone a spotlight on these dark crimes have also met untimely ends. Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist and a close associate of Ms Estemirova, was shot dead in her Moscow apartment block in 2006. Stanislav Markelov, a lawyer who had worked with both women, was shot in broad daylight in central Moscow this January. The murders of Ms Politkovskaya, Mr Markelov, and countless others remain unsolved. It is unsurprising that fingers are being pointed at Mr Kadyrov.

This year, two brothers from the powerful Yamadayev clan who opposed Mr Kadyrov have also been shot dead, one in Dubai and one in Moscow. And a former bodyguard who accused him of torture was killed in Vienna. Mr Kadyrov has denied responsibility for all the killings.

The Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was in Germany yesterday, where Chancellor Angela Merkel took pains to express her “dismay” at the latest killing. Mr Medvedev ? in sharp contrast to his predecessor Mr Putin, who rarely commented on killings like this one ? said he was outraged by the murder and promised the killers would be found and brought to justice.

But many observers feel that his noble words rarely translate into action. Mr Putin as Prime Minister still wields enormous power and the Chechen President is widely seen as Mr Putin’s personal protégé.

At an emotional press conference in the Russian capital, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, said: “I blame both of them for the killing ? for involvement in the killing. The impunity and omnipotence of Ramzan Kadyrov depends on the support of… Putin.

“As long as Putin supports him nobody will touch a hair on Kadyrov’s head, even if he kills us all.

“In this country there is a line that investigators cannot cross. Investigators know that if they cross this line, they will either end up in prison themselves, or will simply be taken off the case.”

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