Image: Alexander Cherkasov, Allison Gill, Oleg Orlov
Mikhail Metzel  /  AP
Human rights activists Alexander Cherkasov, Allison Gill and Oleg Orlov, seen with a portrait of slain Natalya Estemirova, address a news conference in Moscow, Russia, on Thursday.
updated 7/16/2009 12:27:24 PM ET 2009-07-16T16:27:24

Weeping mourners walked through Chechnya's capital on Thursday to honor activist Natalya Estemirova, whose brazen kidnapping and execution-style killing shocked Russia's beleaguered human rights community and prompted international outrage.

In Moscow, Russia's leading rights advocates blamed Chechnya's Kremlin-backed president for the killing. They also said Prime Minister Vladimir Putin shared responsibility for the slaying and for the lawlessness plaguing the North Caucasus region.

"They have killed our soul," said Oleg Orlov, head of the Memorial rights group that Estemirova worked for.

Estemirova's body was found Wednesday afternoon , several hours after she was kidnapped by four men not far from her home in the Chechen capital of Grozny.

The killing, which activists quickly blamed on Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, underscored the persistent crime and violence in the regions surrounding Chechnya. Rights groups said it also showed that Russia remains a place where political murders are committed with impunity.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Estemirova was killed because of her work investigating abductions, killings and rampant rights abuses in Chechnya since the beginning of the second war there, in 1999. He dismissed suggestions that Kadyrov was behind the murder, saying he thought the killers anticipated that government officials would be blamed.

"This provocation, if you want to call it thus, this crime, I am sure the person who committed it will be punished," he said, speaking at a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Munich.

Makeshift memorial
In Grozny, a small group of mourners gathered to remember Estemirova. Weeping women in headscarves talked among themselves at a makeshift memorial to journalists killed in Russia.

Later, about 30 men and women walked in a slow procession through Grozny's streets accompanying what was believed to be Estemirova's body en route to burial. One women at the head of the procession carried a sign that read "Who Will Answer For This?"

Earlier, Estemirova's daughter Lana, 16, joined several dozen supporters who gathered outside Memorial's office in Grozny.

"I can't imagine that mom won't be around any more and that I won't be making a morning coffee for her any more," Lana Estemirova said.

"Natalya was a very courageous person and many men should have learned from her courage and bravery," said one supporter, Malika Batiyev, 45.

Russian and international rights groups expressed outrage over the killing — the latest in a string of murders targeting journalists, lawyers and activists critical of the Kremlin's policies in the war-torn North Caucasus.

Image: Natalya Estemirova
Musa Sadulayev  /  AP
Natalya Estemirova's body  was found Wednesday, hours after the human rights activist had been kidnapped.

Leading Russian rights activists said they held Putin and Kadyrov, the man he has repeatedly endorsed, responsible for her killing.

"I blame both of them for the killing — for involvement in the killing," Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group and one of the country's most respected activists, told an emotional news conference in Moscow.

Orlov, head of Memorial, said Kadyrov hated Estemirova and saw her as "a personal enemy." He said Kadyrov has created an atmosphere in which people in Chechnya were kidnapped every day and put into secret prisons.

"The highest officials of Russia in recent years and today — including Putin and Medvedev — are to blame for the creation in Chechnya of a climate of permissiveness, impunity and the carrying out of massive, grave crimes by representatives of the state," he told reporters.

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, rejected the accusations.

"These views are actually contrary to real efforts that were undertaken by Mr. Putin during the last decade in terms of bringing peace, stability and rule of order to ... Chechnya," he told The Associated Press.

Kadyrov, meanwhile, vowed to personally oversee the investigation into Estemirova's slaying even though critics blame his own security forces for it.

Estemirova was killed on the same day as the release of a report she helped research that concluded there was enough evidence to demand that Russian officials, including Putin, be called to account for crimes committed on their watch.

The 50-year-old single mother had worked with two other top rights activists, rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and reporter Anna Politkovskaya , who were also likely killed for their work.

She had collected evidence of rights abuses in Chechnya since 1999, when the second separatist war began in the province after the 1991 Soviet collapse. She was a key researcher for a recent Human Rights Watch report that accused Chechen authorities of burning more than two dozen houses in the past year to punish relatives of alleged rebels.

Despite the end of large scale fighting in Chechnya, the North Caucasus has been increasingly roiled by shootings and kidnappings linked to Islamist insurgents, criminal elements and ethnic feuds.

Security sweeps along the border between Ingushetia and Chechnya intensified last month after a suicide bombing attack on Ingushetia's president.

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