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Russian rights activist kidnapped, found dead

in.reuters.com

Russian rights activist kidnapped, found dead

MOSCOW – july 16 – A prominent human rights activist was found dead after being kidnapped in Russia’s troubled republic of Chechnya on Wednesday, provoking outrage from President Dmitry Medvedev and the international community.

Natalia Estemirova, a close friend of murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, worked for the human rights organisation Memorial in the Chechen capital Grozny and documented abuses by law enforcement agencies, colleagues said.

Her body was found in neighbouring Ingushetia.

“The news was reported to the president, he was outraged and gave all appropriate orders to the head of the investigations commission (Alexander) Bastrykin,” Medvedev’s spokeswoman Natalya Timakova said.

The killing came a week after U.S. President Barack Obama met with Russian civil society activists, including members of Estemirova’s group. The White House National Security Council issued a strong statement of condemnation, saying it was “deeply disturbed and saddened.”

“Such a heinous crime sends a chilling signal to Russian civil society and the international community and illustrates the tragic deterioration of security and the rule of law in the North Caucasus over the last several months,” NSC spokesman Mike Hammer said in a statement.

“We call upon the Russian government to bring to justice those responsible for this outrageous crime and demonstrate that lawlessness and impunity will not be tolerated,” he said.

The murder is the latest in a series of killings of journalists and human rights defenders in Russia which has drawn international condemnation and led to questions about Medvedev’s pledges to uphold the rule of law and build a freer society.

“The body had two wounds to the head, it was clear she had been murdered in the morning,” Madina Khadziyeva, a spokeswoman at the Ingush Interior Ministry, told Reuters. She did not specify the nature of the injuries.

“It is evident that this deliberate murder could be related to Natalia Estemirova’s human rights activities,” said Medvedev’s spokeswoman.

Estemirova’s body was found in woodland near the Ingush city of Nazran, the Ingush interior ministry spokeswoman added.

She was snatched as she left her house on Wednesday morning, pushed into a white vehicle and driven away, colleagues at Memorial and Tanya Lokshina, Russia researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), told Reuters.

Estemirova was a single mother aged about 50, friends said, and leaves a teenage daughter.

‘BRUTAL ACT’

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, whose country holds the EU’s rotating presidency, told a news conference in Strasbourg, France: “We of course condemn that brutal act and call for the authorities to try to establish who is responsible.”

Well known to diplomats and human rights activists in Russia, Estemirova was the inaugural recipient in 2007 of the Anna Politkovskaya Award, given by the charity Reach All Women in War (RAWinWAR).

Politkovskaya was gunned down by a lone assailant in her Moscow apartment building in 2006 as she returned home from a shopping trip. Nobody has yet been convicted of her murder.

A fluent Chechen speaker, Estemirova acted as Politkovskaya’s interpreter during her reporting trips to Chechnya, RAWinWAR said on its website. She also reported on the situation freelance for local media.

Alexander Cherkasov, who works at Memorial’s Moscow head office, said her investigations into a recent public execution held in Chechnya attracted unwanted attention from authorities.

“It is known that this provoked — to put it gently — a nervous reaction from the Chechen authorities,” he said.

Estemirova focused on house burnings by security forces in mainly Muslim Chechnya, as well as abductions and unlawful killings, Memorial and HRW said.

A spokesman for Chechnya’s leader, ex-rebel turned Kremlin loyalist Ramzan Kadyrov, declined comment on her death.

Chechnya and the nearby Muslim republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan are home to a simmering low-level Islamist insurgency.

Human rights groups have repeatedly accused the authorities of serious abuses during their war on the insurgents, including extra-judicial killings, torture and illegal punishment.

“During the first war in Chechnya, Natasha (Estemirova) collected numerous testimonies from civilians who were tortured by the Russian forces in unofficial detention facilities,” RAWinWar said on its site.

HRW’s Lokshina said she was killed for her work: “She was documenting some blatant human rights abuses… There is absolutely no doubt that is linked to her work, she was killed simply because of doing her job as a human rights worker.”

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Obama praises Putin at first meeting

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Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (R), his wife Svetlana (2nd R), U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and first lady Michelle Obama pose for a picture at the presidential residence Gorki outside Moscow July 6, 2009.

Obama praises Putin at first meeting

NOVO OGARYOVO, Russia (Reuters) – Visiting U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday praised Russia’s most powerful politician, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, as the two leaders met for the first time, saying there was an excellent opportunity to improve U.S.-Russia relations.

Visibly awkward, the two men exchanged pleasantries at the start of a meeting at Putin’s forest residence outside Moscow overshadowed by Obama’s criticism of Putin last week in a pre-trip interview as a man with one foot stuck in the past.

“I am aware of not only the extraordinary work that you’ve done on behalf of the Russian people in your previous role as prime minis-, uh, as president, but in your current role as prime minister,” Obama said.

Putin, looking down and mostly avoiding eye contact with Obama, said there had been periods of greyish mood and confrontation in U.S.-Russia relations but added:

“We link hopes for development of our relationship with your name.”

Obama’s meeting with Putin, a former KGB spy who served as president from 2000-2008 before handing over the top Kremlin job to his hand-picked successor Dmitry Medvedev, follows talks on Monday with Medvedev.

They produced agreements on a target for cuts in nuclear arms, a deal to let U.S. troops fly across Russia to fight in Afghanistan and the establishment of a joint governmental commission to improve relations between the two former Cold War superpowers.

On the second day of his visit to Russia, Obama was also due to deliver a major speech on democracy, the global economy and the U.S.-Russian relationship to students at Moscow’s New Economic School.

Obama sought to reassure his student audience, who listened politely in silence, of his vision for better relations between Washington and Moscow but acknowledged continued differences between the two countries on issues such as missile defence and NATO expansion.

“Let me be clear: America wants a strong, peaceful and prosperous Russia,” Obama said in a speech to the graduating students from Moscow’s New Economic School.

SPHERES OF INFLUENCE

The speech was not, as would have been expected for a U.S. presidential address, shown live on Russian television channels. The media have generally given a rather low profile to Obama.

“…we also recognise the future benefit that will come from a strong and vibrant Russia.”

Obama is on the second day of a visit to Russia intended to “reset” relations between the world’s two biggest holders of nuclear weapons following a period of tension and argument.

“This must be more than a fresh start between the Kremlin and the White House,” Obama said of the “reset” in his speech.

“It must be a sustained effort among the American and Russian people to identify mutual interests, and to expand dialogue and cooperation.”

Obama made clear his opposition to the old Soviet concept of “spheres of influence”, an allusion to Moscow’s claim on special influence over former Soviet states like Ukraine and Georgia.

Instead he urged the students to strive for a peaceful, collaborative world in words which some Russia-watchers said recalled those of former U.S. president Bill Clinton during his visits to Moscow.

“The future does not belong to those who gather armies on a field of battle or bury missiles in the ground,” Obama said. “The future belongs to young people with the education and imagination to create.”

He was speaking after a first meeting with Russia’s most powerful politician, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who kept a close personal rapport with Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush despite poor diplomatic relations.

U.S. officials described the meeting as “very succesful” and said the two men had formed the basis for good relations.

Obama and Putin exchanged pleasantries at the start of talks at Putin’s forest residence outside Moscow overshadowed by Obama’s criticism of the Russian leader last week in a pre-trip interview as a man with one foot stuck in the Cold War.

Obama was quick to praise Putin for “extraordinary work” but Putin avoided eye contact with Obama and looked down at the floor as he made opening remarks, saying there had been periods of greyish relations and confrontation between the two nations.

After the meeting, which lasted more than two hours, Putin came out of his residence to wish Obama farewell.

Obama’s meeting with Putin, a former KGB spy who served as president from 2000-2008 before handing over the top Kremlin job to his hand-picked successor Dmitry Medvedev, followed talks on Monday with Medvedev.

They produced deals on a target for cuts in nuclear arms, a deal to let U.S. troops fly across Russia to fight in Afghanistan and the establishment of a joint governmental commission to improve relations between the two former rivals.

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Obama agrees arms cuts, Afghan transit with Russia

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U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev shake hands after a joint news conference at the Kremlin in Moscow July 6, 2009.

Obama agrees arms cuts, Afghan transit with Russia

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Visiting U.S. President Barack Obama and Kremlin leader Dmitry Medvedev agreed a target for cuts in nuclear arms and a deal to let U.S. troops fly across Russia at the start of a trip intended to mend strained ties.

At a cordial, formal news conference in the Kremlin’s vast, gilded St Andrew’s Hall, the two leaders spoke of their resolve to put differences behind them and focus on cooperating to solve global problems such as the spread of nuclear weapons.

Both mentioned the issues that still divide them — Russia’s opposition to Washington’s plans for a missile defence shield in central Europe and U.S. insistence on Georgia’s territorial integrity — but stressed the positives in public.

Obama praised Medvedev as a “straightforward, professional” leader who understood the interests of the Russian people and wanted to understand those of the United States, adding:

“We have resolved to reset U.S.-Russia relations so that we can cooperate more effectively.”

At a signing ceremony, Obama and Medvedev, wearing identical dark suits, white shirts and red ties, pledged to finalise a treaty by year-end to cut the number of deployed nuclear warheads on each side to 1,500-1,675 from levels above 2,200.

Details of the arms deal were open until the night before Obama’s arrival, with negotiators on both sides working through the weekend to secure agreement.

Medvedev described their talks as “very useful and open, businesslike conversations” and said they would aim to build a U.S.-Russia relationship worthy of the 21st century.

Russia will allow 4,500 flights a year carrying U.S. troops and weapons to the war in Afghanistan to cross its vast territory free of charge, a move hailed by the U.S. side as showing Moscow’s willingness to help in the war on the Taliban.

Other accords covered the resumption of U.S.-Russia military cooperation, the creation of a new joint government commission, and an exchange of information on prisoners of war, according to texts released by officials.

Clouds remain on the horizon.

Senior Russian officials repeatedly emphasised in the run-up to the visit that Moscow would not sign an arms treaty later this year unless Obama made concessions on Bush-era plans for an anti-missile system in Europe, a project hated by the Kremlin which fears it could threaten Russia’s security.

Obama has ordered a review of the project and the leaders played down their differences on it at the Kremlin, saying they had agreed a statement to continue to work together to evaluate global threats from ballistic missiles.

Officials on both sides said the statement had not been planned in advance but the two leaders decided to draw it up during their private talks, reflecting their desire to cooperate.

Noting that Obama had listened to Russian objections on missile defence, Medvedev used markedly softer language on the issue than Russian officials have done to date.

“No one is saying that missile defence is harmful in itself or that it poses a threat to someone,” he told the news conference.

It remains to be seen whether Obama gets the same message on Tuesday at a breakfast meeting with the man who holds most political power in Russia and who chose Medvedev for the Kremlin, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

In a slip-up common among visitors confused by Russia’s unusual dual power structure, Obama referred at the news conference to a forthcoming meeting with “President” Vladimir Putin before hastily correcting himself.

Putin was out of Moscow on Monday visiting a combine harvester factory in southern Russia.

Earlier Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov greeted Obama, his wife Michelle and their two daughters as they stepped from Air Force One at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport under unseasonally cold, cloudy skies.

The arrival was not shown live on Russian television and there was generally little sign in Moscow of the “Obamamania” which has greeted the U.S. leader on some other foreign trips.

Obama’s motorcade sped alone along a barricaded highway from the airport towards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for a wreath-laying ceremony. In the city’s outskirts, small groups of onlookers smiled and waved but most looked on without reaction.

Business leaders travelling with Obama want to use the visit to boost trade and investment. Russian trade with the United States was just $36 billion in 2008, the same amount as with Poland, and investment has lagged that of European competitors.

During his talks with Medvedev, Obama raised business concerns with the Kremlin leader, calling for investors in Russia to be treated consistently, according to a U.S. official.

On Tuesday Obama will listen to the country’s embattled democratic opposition, meet former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and make a major speech to Russian students which is likely to touch on his vision of freedom.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Guy Faulconbridge, Dmitry Sergeyev and Amie Ferris-Rotman)

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