GROZNY, Russia – Weeping mourners escorted the body of Natalya Estemirova through Chechnya's capital on Thursday, honoring the activist 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 and said Prime Minister Vladimir Putin shared responsibility for the slaying and for the lawlessness plaguing the North Caucasus.
"They have killed our soul," said Oleg Orlov, head of the Memorial rights group that Estemirova worked for.
Estemirova's gunshot body was found Wednesday afternoon, hours after she was kidnapped by four men not far from her home in the Chechen capital, 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.
"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," Orlov said.
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. But he dismissed suspicions that Kadyrov was behind the murder, saying the killers likely intended that government officials be blamed.
"This provocation, if you want to call it thus, this crime, I am sure the person who committed it will be punished," Medvedev said at a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Munich.
In Grozny, about 100 mourners gathered to remember Estemirova outside Memorial's office, some sobbing, others talking among themselves.
Taus Dzhankhotova, 50, said she was unaware of the killing before showing up at the Memorial offices carrying a pizza and melon that she wanted to give to Estemirova in thanks for the legal help she had provided.
"What for? What for?" she said, crying. "They kill only the good people here. If she was bad, they wouldn't have touched her."
Estemirova's daughter Lana, 15, said she was stunned by the death of her mother.
"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," she said.
"Natalya was a very courageous person and many men should have learned from her courage and bravery," said another supporter, Malika Batiyev, 45.
Later, about 50 men and women walked in a slow procession along Prospekt Putin — a central Grozny street — accompanying Estemirova's body, which was carried in a yellow minivan en route to a cemetery in eastern Chechnya. One women at the head of the procession carried a sign that read "Who Next?"
The group continued several blocks before being met by a group of camouflaged men who said they were police and asked them to disperse, since the procession was not authorized. The mourners then dispersed, with many getting into cars to attend the burial later.
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.
Leading Russian rights activists said they held Putin and Kadyrov, the man Putin has repeatedly endorsed, responsible.
"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.
"The impunity and omnipotence of Ramzan Kadyrov depends on the support of ... Putin," Alexeyeva said. "As long as Putin supports him, nobody will touch a hair on Kadyrov's head, even if he kills us all."
Orlov said Kadyrov hated Estemirova and saw her as "a personal enemy." He said Kadyrov had 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," Orlov 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 the 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 blamed his own security forces for it.
Estemirova was killed on the same day as a report that she helped research was released, concluding 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 Kremlin critics who also had been slain: lawyer Stanislav Markelov and reporter Anna Politkovskaya.
Estemirova had collected evidence of rights abuses in Chechnya since 1999, when the province's second separatist war began 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.
Later Thursday, around 200 people crowded into part of Pushkin Square in central Moscow, holding pictures of Estemirova as well as of Politkovskaya. An elderly woman waved a Russian flag painted with these words: "They killed the freedom of Russia." Another woman rang a bell over a makeshift memorial crafted from photocopied photos of her, a handful of flowers, two table candles and a small sign that read, "They will not kill the truth."
Vladimir Golobodsky, a 72-year-old Moscow teacher, doubted Estemirova's killers would ever be found.
"As a rule, such crimes are not solved," he said. "It looks like they do not really want to solve them."