European court rules Russia failed to properly investigate activist's Chechnya murder

FILE PHOTO: Chechen journalist and activist Natalia Estemirova poses at the Front Line Club in London

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Europe's top rights court ruled that Russia had failed to effectively investigate the abduction and murder of prominent human rights activist Natalia Estemirova, dealing a blow to her family on Tuesday who had hoped for a much wider ruling.

Estemirova, 51 at the time of her killing in 2009, worked for the human rights organisation Memorial in the Chechen capital Grozny and documented extrajudicial killings, disappearances and abuses by law enforcement agencies.

She was kidnapped in July 2009 and shot in the head and chest. Her body was recovered in the neighbouring region of Ingushetia.

In its ruling, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) said there was not enough evidence to conclude that Estemirova had been kidnapped by state agents as Svetlana Estemirova, the murdered activist's sister who brought the lawsuit, had alleged.

The court said that evidence in the case did however "cast doubt on the thoroughness of the investigation" and that the government had also failed to submit the entire investigative file for the court's assessment.

There was no immediate response from the Russian authorities. Russian state media focused on the fact that the court had not found convincing evidence of state involvement.

Lana, Estemirova's daughter, said she was not satisfied.

"I am glad that the Court found that there was no proper investigation, but otherwise this is an extremely disappointing judgment," she said in a statement.

"It was a catch-22 situation, as the Court concluded there was not enough evidence of the Russian authorities’ complicity in my mother’s murder, but they didn’t submit enough evidence to the Court. This is no way to produce a fair judgment."

In 2010, Russian investigators charged militant Alkhazur Bashayev with Natalia Estemirova's abduction and murder. His whereabouts remain unknown.

Critics and activists say Moscow has turned a blind eye to right abuses in Chechnya, where it fought two wars against separatists after the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union.

The region is ruled by Ramzan Kadyrov, whose administration receives a wide degree of autonomy and subsidies in return for loyalty to the Kremlin.

Rights groups and Western governments say Chechen authorities repress political opponents, discriminate against women and harshly persecute sexual minorities, allegations Chechnya's leadership denies.

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Andrew Osborn)