MOSCOW – Chechnya's Kremlin-backed leader Ramzan Kadyrov on Tuesday won a defamation lawsuit against a rights activist who blamed him for the killing of a colleague whose murder sparked international outrage.
Moscow's Tverskoi district court ordered Memorial rights group chairman Oleg Orlov to retract his statement that Kadyrov was responsible for Natalya Estemirova's death.
Kadyrov's lawsuit attracted new attention to the July slaying of Estemirova, who headed Memorial's branch in Chechnya and drew Kadyrov's ire by reporting on rights abuses there.
Orlov has never said he had evidence of Kadyrov's direct involvement in Estemirova's slaying but has repeatedly blamed him for it, citing an atmosphere of lawlessness and impunity he said the powerful leader has fostered.
Orlov vowed to appeal.
"I don't agree with this decision, but in modern Russia one couldn't expect any other," he said.
Kadyrov sought 10 million rubles ($330,000) in damages, but judge Tatyana Fedosova ruled that Memorial and Orlov should only pay 70,000 rubles ($2,300 rubles).
"It's a pity the amount is so small, it would have been a good lesson to other liars," Kadyrov's lawyer Andrei Krasnenkov told reporters.
Still, the ruling came as a blow to beleaguered Russian rights activists who have sharply criticized the government's policies in Chechnya and elsewhere but have been stonewalled by the Kremlin.
The Kremlin has strongly backed Kadyrov, whose security forces have been accused of massive abuses against civilians amid the fight against militants still active in Chechnya after two separatist wars over the last 15 years.
The ruling came after defense witness Alexander Cherkasov testified that Estemirova had feared for her safety after a March 2008 conversation with Kadyrov.
"Kadyrov yelled at her and called her names," Cherkasov, another Memorial activist. He recalled that Estemirova said Kadyrov was angry that she had criticized his demand that women in Chechnya wear Islamic headscarves in public in the mostly Muslim region.
"She perceived the conversation as a threat for her safety," prompting her to leave Russia for some time and arrange for her teenage daughter to leave Chechnya, Cherkasov said.
Estemirova led Memorial's branch in Chechnya until she was abducted and killed on July 15 outside her home in the capital, Grozny. Her bullet-riddled body was found by a roadside. Her death followed a string of killings of Kadyrov's critics and political rivals.
Krasnenkov, Kadyrov's lawyer accused Memorial of slandering Kadyrov in order to win popularity. He summoned witnesses from Chechnya who denied that the president had threatened Estemirova.
Witness Aminat Malsagova, who described herself as a friend of Estemirova, said the slain activist had taken "a biased stance against positive actions by Kadyrov."
Estemirova had worked with investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who accused Kadyrov of atrocities and gross human rights violations and was gunned down in her Moscow apartment building in 2006.
Estemirova also helped Stanislav Markelov, a lawyer involved in Chechen rights abuse cases who was shot dead on a Moscow street in January, along with an opposition newspaper reporter.