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Russian Journalist Elena Milashina Speaks Out on Alarming Rise in Murders, Threats Against Critics of Government Abuses in North Caucasus

StoryOctober 29, 2009
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Russia has seen an alarming rise in the murders of journalists and activists speaking out about government abuses in the embattled North Caucasus region. We speak to Elena Milashina, a Russian investigative journalist who has just won the 2009 Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism from Human Rights Watch. She was friends with both the activist and journalist Natalya Estemirova, who was killed in July, and the internationally renowned Anna Politkovskaya, who was killed in October 2006. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to Russia, where there has been an alarming rise in the murders of journalists and activists speaking out about government abuses in the embattled North Caucasus region. Late Saturday night, a prominent human rights activist and businessman from Ingushetia was killed when his car was sprayed by some sixty bullets. Maksharip Aushev had led mass protests against alleged abuses by the Russian government’s security forces in Ingushetia.

In July, activist and journalist Natalya Estemirova from the neighboring republic of Chechnya was killed while investigating extremely sensitive cases of human rights abuses by security forces. She worked for the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta and the Russian human rights organization Memorial.

Earlier this month, the chairman of Memorial, Oleg Orlov, was awarded Europe’s top human rights honor, the Sakharov Prize. He said the international recognition was bittersweet, coming as it did on the heels of Natalya’s murder.

    OLEG ORLOV: [translated] Natasha Estemirova, our friend and colleague who was killed in July last year, she was nominated for this prize, I think 2004. She did not receive the prize at the time. The prize was given to other people who also deserved it. But, you know, this also gives a bitter taste. She got the bullet, and we got the prize.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Russian human rights activist Oleg Orlov now faces a criminal lawsuit and the possibility of time in prison. The case against him is based on statements he made accusing the pro-Moscow Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov of playing a role in the abduction and killing of Natalya Estemirova.

For more on the threats faced by outspoken human rights activists and journalists in Russia, we’re joined by two guests. Elena Milashina is a Russian investigative journalist for Russia’s most prominent independent newspaper, Novoya Gazeta, writing about government abuses, repression and corruption, particularly in Chechnya and other parts of the North Caucasus. She was friends with both Natalya and the internationally renowned Anna Politkovskaya, who was killed October of 2006. They, too, reported from Chechnya for the same newspaper. Elena just received the 2009 Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism from Human Rights Watch. And she’s speaking at CUNY New York Graduate School tonight in a program called “Bearing Witness in Chechnya: The Legacy of Natalya Estemirova.”

I want to welcome you both to Democracy Now! Rachel Denber also with us. First, Elena, talk about Natalya Estemirova, her significance.

ELENA MILASHINA: Well, it’s really hard, because Natasha — you said I was friend to Anna and Natasha. Anna was something like a teacher for me. Natasha was a friend, a very dear friend. And last time I saw her, it was 14 of July. Me and Tanya Lokshina, who works for Moscow Human Rights, were there on our trip there, trying to discover some cases of torturing and killing. And we fly away on 14th of July. And the 15th of July, in the morning, Natasha was kidnapped and killed.

AMY GOODMAN: Who did it?

ELENA MILASHINA: I think I can say that to her death has — the strong communication to her death, probably they did it. It’s the policemen from [inaudible], because — why I think — because she discovered that they were killing people, torturing them, killing them in public, and she talked about it. And as I know, the investigation of her murder is going around this [inaudible] this police service in Chechnya and I’m pretty sure that it has strong connection to her murder.

And, of course, behind that is the president of Chechnya, because he is the one who take the whole responsibility for this killing. And personally, I think he is the one who take the whole responsibility for the killing of Anna Politkovskaya, because these two women were his personal enemies. And I don’t know how it could be, because, first, they’re women, and it’s not good to fight with women. And the second, they were human rights activists. They were talking about things that not going wrong — that going wrong in Chechnya. They still kidnap people. They still kill them. They still torture them. There is no freedom in Chechnya. There is no stability in Chechnya, actually. And this just probably was the most dangerous thing for Kadyrov and for Putin, because the stability in Chechnya is the information blockade — when you don’t know anything what happened, and then you think it’s stable, and there is no war, there is no military Russian troops, and there is no bombing of Grozny anymore, and it’s stability. It’s not stability, because there is no human rights there.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And five journalists from your paper have been killed.


JUAN GONZALEZ: What’s it like for the rest of you in that paper, in terms of your everyday ability to cover the news?

ELENA MILASHINA: Well, it’s dangerous. We have several our journalists, including me, but right now I am here in America. I have a year of studying in the University of Michigan. But we have them on danger, and we understand who can — who is behind this threat. And we had — with Natasha Estemirova, it was so dangerous, because in the February she got threatened from the Kadyrov and his close surrounding, a person named — well, it doesn’t matter what his name, actually. But he, [inaudible] — it’s a major of Grozny, the city, the capital of Chechnya.

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

ELENA MILASHINA: Yeah, and we just cut to cover the Chechnya for a while, because it was too dangerous.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. I want to thank you for being with us. We’ll do part two of this.

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