Estemirova v. Russia

Estemirova v. Russia

Figure 1) Source: Wikipedia:

Roos Craanen (BA, MSc, LL.B., LL.M.)
GHRD Intern: International Justice and Human Rights team. 


On the 31st of August 2021, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) delivered long-awaited judgment regarding the abduction and murder of famous human rights defender, Natalia Estemirova. 

Born in 1962, Estemirova worked for ‘Memorial,’ a Human Rights Group based in Chechnya (Estemirova v. Russia, para. 5). She dedicated her life to investigate and bring to light cases of extrajudicial killings, torture, and abductions (Estemirova v. Russia, para. 5). In 2009, Estemirova accused an armed group called ‘Shalazhi jamaat’, led by Mr. Bashayev, of the aforementioned crimes (Estemirova v. Russia, para. 7).  

It was her brave exposure of this group which led to her abduction and murder on the 15th of July 2009 (Registrar of the Court, 2021, 1-2). She was abducted near her apartment in Grozny, Chechnya. Later that afternoon her body was found. This indicated that she had been shot in the chest and head (Estemirova v. Russia, para. 12). The location of the presumed leader of the group of perpetrators, Mr. Bashayev, was, and still is, unknown (Amnesty International, 2021a; Registrar of the Court, 2021, 2).

Estemirova’s sister lodged an application on the 21st of June 2011 at the European Court of Human Rights. The applicant maintained that the abduction of Estemirova violated the right to life (article 2) and the right to an effective remedy (article 13) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) (Estemirova v. Russia, para. 45). The complaint was that the Russian authorities had failed to protect Estemirova’s life and that the investigation was inefficient and too narrow in scope by solely exploring the theory that she had been murdered by Bashayev’s armed group (Estemirova v. Russia, paras. 47-53; Registrar of the Court 2021, 1-2). In the applicant’s view, it was likely that the government had been involved in her assassination (Amnesty International, 2021a; Estemirova v. Russia, para. 48).

Figure 2) Natalia Estemirova – Commissioner for Human Rights, ‘The Commissioner Calls on Russian Authorities to Establish the Truth About the Murder of Natalia Estemirova’ (Council of Europe, 15 July 2019) Accessed 03 September 2021. 

Jurisdiction of the Court 

The European Court for Human Rights is the main judicial organ responsible for enforcing the European Convention on Human Rights. It is located in Strasbourg, France (Bantekas &      Oette 2013, 221). The Court can assess complaints by individuals and States after all domestic remedies have been exhausted (Bantekas & Oette, 2013, 224). It is necessary that the referred case falls within the Court’s jurisdiction. The ECtHR’s jurisdiction spans across all 47 member States of the Council of Europe (Council of Europe, 2021b). 

As the Russian Federation joined the Council of Europe on the 28th of February 1996, the Court could assume jurisdiction over the abduction and murder of Estemirova after it had been referred (Council of Europe, 2021a).

The relevance of the Estemirova case lies in the precarious situation of human rights defenders in general and in Eastern Europe specifically (Amnesty International, 2021a). The United Nations Human Rights Council recently confirmed that 331 human rights defenders were murdered in 2020 (Hodal, 2021). The Netherlands Helsinki Committee confirms that human rights defenders in the region are frequently exposed to death threats, intimidation, harassment, imprisonment, administrative detention or tried for crimes they did not commit (The Netherlands Helsinki Committee, 2021). Oftentimes, the perpetrators are not brought to justice, which results in a culture of impunity (United Nations Human Rights Council, 2021). Moreover, this environment impacts the ability of citizens to access human rights protection. Namely, Human Rights Watch explains that the local Chechnyan population was less willing to request help by human rights groups following Estemirova’s murder (Human Rights Watch, 2019).

A recent example of the nature of the dangers faced by human rights defenders is the murder of Vital Shyshou, a Belarusian activist who came to the aid of Belarusian nationals fearing persecution by their government (Amnesty International, 2021b). He went missing after a run in the park and was hanged (Amnesty International, 2021b). According to Amnesty International, there is reason to presume that his murder was caused by his political activism and may implicate the Belarusian government (Amnesty International, 2021b).


Figure 3) European Court of Human Rights. Source: Steinl, L, ‘Germany before the European Court of Human Rights: Finally Accountability for the Airstrike at Kunduz (and Beyond),’ (Opinio Juris 29 February 2020) <> Accessed 03 September 2021. 


The Court concluded that the Russian authorities could not be held responsible for the abduction and murder of Estemirova. This was largely the result of the fact that the Court denied that this was a ‘prima facie case’ of state abduction and murder (Estemirova v. Russia, paras. 65-67). This Latin maxim means that the burden of proof would be switched from the applicant to the defendant. Had this approach been successful, Russia would have had to provide evidence that they were not involved in the murder and abduction of Estemirova (Estemirova v. Russia, paras. 63-67). The Court held that this was not a prima facie case, as the applicant had relied upon alternative witness testimonies which were considered unconvincing because of their ‘hearsay’ nature and contradicted the findings of other eyewitnesses (Estemirova v. Russia, paras. 65-67). Consequently, there was no violation of Article 2 ECHR (Estemirova v. Russia, para. 67). 

Nevertheless, Russia had acted in violation of Article 2 ECHR due to the insufficient investigation tasked to uncover what had happened to Estemirova (Estemirova v. Russia, paras. 70-72). Although the Court acknowledges that the investigation was launched quickly after her murder and made good progress, there were contradictory and inconclusive findings which could not be overlooked (Registrar of the Court 2021, 2-3). For example, the team of experts found that the bullets had not been shot from the confiscated silencer, whereas the investigators team had concluded that they had been (Estemirova v. Russia, para. 69). Similarly, no DNA from Mr. Bashayev was found on Estemirova’s body, but he was nevertheless considered the prime perpetrator of the offence (Estemirova v. Russia, para. 69). 

The questions raised by these contradictions and inconsistencies could not be solved by the investigative report submitted to the court. In fact, only 1500 out of 10.000 pages were submitted by Russia (Estemirova v. Russia, para. 16). Considering the limited insight into what the total investigation discovered, the Court held that the investigation launched by the Chechnyan authorities fell short of the requirements set out under Article 2 ECHR (Estemirova v. Russia, para. 70; Registrar of the Court, 2021, 3). 

Building on the above, the applicant contended that the limited disclosure of the full report amounted to a separate violation under Article 38 of the ECHR. Article 38 of the Convention specifies that States have a duty to cooperate with the Court during investigations and “shall furnish all necessary facilities.” As the Court had explicitly requested the full report but the government refused to hand it over, it held that Russia had acted in contravention of Article 38 ECHR (Estemirova v. Russia, paras. 75-76; Registrar of the Court, 2021, 3). 

Lastly, the Court awarded the applicant €20.000 euros for the “non-pecuniary damage” experienced by the applicant (Estemirova v. Russia, para. 82). It also ordered the Russian Federation to continue its investigation to find the perpetrators accountable (Estemirova v. Russia, para. 92). It did not order the State to implement legislation to better protect human rights defenders, as the state party to the Convention has a discretionary power to best implement the ruling (Estemirova v. Russia, paras 91-92). 


To conclude, the Estemirova case found that Russian authorities could not be held directly responsible for her abduction and murder. As the State could not be held responsible, it could not have deprived Estemirova from her right to life under Article 2. That being said, the Court held that Russia had violated Article 2 ECHR with regards to the effectiveness of the investigation that was conducted following Estemirova’s murder. For further information please see:



Estemirova v. Russia, Application no. 42705/11 (ECtHR 31 August 2021) Accessed 02 September 2021. 

Secondary Sources 

Amnesty International (a), ‘European Court’s Judgment on Natalia Estemirova’s Abduction and Killing Highlights Unabated Impunity in Russia’ (Amnesty International, 31 August 2021) Accessed 03 September 2021.

Amnesty International (b), ‘Ukraine: Authorities must Conduct Effective Investigation into Suspicious death of prominent Belarusian Exile’ (Amnesty International, 3 August 2021) Accessed 06 September 2021. 

Bantekas, I, Oette, L, International Human Rights: Law and Practice (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2013). 

Council of Europe (a), ‘The Council of Europe and the Russian Federation (Council of Europe, 2021) Accessed 06 September 2021). 

Council of Europe (b), ‘The European Convention on Human Rights’ (Council of Europe, 2021) Accessed 03 September 2021. 

Hodal, K, ‘At Least 331 Human Rights Defenders were Murdered in 2020, Report Finds’ The Guardian (London, 11 February 2021) Accessed 06 September 2021. 

Human Rights Watch, ‘Russia: A Decade On, No Justice for Natalia Estemirova: Rights Groups Call on Government to Bring Killers to Account’ (Human Rights Watch, 15 July 2019) Accessed 06 September 2021. 

Registrar of the Court, ‘Press Release: No State Involvement in Estemirova Assassination, but Failure to investigate the Crime’ (European Court of Human Rights, 31 August 2021){"itemid":["003-7103673-9617595"]} Accessed 02 September 2021. 

The Netherlands Helsinki Committee, ‘Support Human Rights Defenders in Eastern Europe and Central Asia’ (The Netherlands Helsinki Committee, 2021) Accessed 06 September 2021. 

United Nations Human Rights Council, ‘Impunity for Killings of Human Rights Defenders Remains a Key Driver for More Murders, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders tells Human Rights Council’ (United Nations Human Rights Council, 5 March 2021) Accessed 06 September 2021.