Last updated: August 11, 2009 10:51 pm

Charity chief found dead in Chechnya

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The head of a charity helping children in Russia’s turbulent republic of Chechnya has been found shot dead, together with her husband , the latest activist to be killed as violence escalates in the region.

The murders of Zarema Sadulayeva and her husband Alik Dzhabrailov, whose bodies were found in the boot of a car, come just weeks after Natalia Estemirova, a leading camapaigner for Memorial, the human rights group, was kidnapped and shot dead, provoking international outrage.

Rights campaigners said the latest murders showed that activists in Chechnya could no longer operate safely. “I thought there would be some kind of respite after Natalia Estemirova was kidnapped, but it’s now clear that violence against civil rights campaigners is now the norm,” said Lyudmilla Alexeyeva, the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, the human rights organisation.

Rights campaigners had pointed the finger at Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader, as running a brutal regime where opposition figures were regularly kidnapped and killed, stoking a wave of violence across Russia’s North Caucasus. But Mr Kadyrov had denied any connection to Estemirova’s killing and on Tuesday he said he was shocked at the latest attack.

Mr Kadyrov instead accused militant leaders of attacking rights groups as a new tactic to destabilise the situation in Chechnya, which has been rocked by a wave of bomb attacks on police officers in recent weeks. “They are trying to create an atmosphere of total destruction, nervousness and mistrust,” he said.

Armed men seized Sadulayeva and Dzhabrailov on Monday night from the office of Save the Generation, the charity she ran to provide aid and psychological rehabilitation to disabled children, orphans and other groups shaken by Russia’s two wars against separatist forces there, according to Tatyana Lokshina of Human Rights Watch, which worked with the group. Their bodies were found on Tuesday morning in a suburb of Grozny, the Chechen capital. Ms Lokshina called the killings a “monstrous crime”.

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Sadulayeva and Dzhabrailov had married a few months ago, after he served time in prison on charges of being a member of a Chechen separatist movement, the Associated Press news agency reported. The agency cited Vakhit Sadulayev, the female victim’s uncle, as saying the main target of the armed men seemed to be Dzhabrailov. He said when they tried to take him away alone, his wife insisted on going with them.

Mr Kadyrov has come under increasing pressure in recent weeks as violence has surged in Chechnya ending a period of relative calm under his rule. Last week, five police officers were shot dead by militants, while another five were killed by a suicide bomber who set off a bomb two weeks ago at a Grozny theatre that Mr Kadyrov had been due to attend. Attacks have escalated across the restive Muslim republics neighbouring Chechnya. Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, the president of Ingushetia, only this week emerged from hospital after a near fatal attack in July by a suicide bomber that killed his driver.

Mr Kadyrov’s ombudsman for human rights, told Ekho Moskvy, the Russian independent radio station, on Tuesday that the killings of the charity workers, who had been involved in activities “extremely necessary for Chechnya”, were aimed at “exploding Russia’s policies in the North Caucasus

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