Russian Court Orders Shutdown of One of the Country’s Oldest Human Rights Groups
MOSCOW (AP)—Russia’s Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that one of the country’s oldest and most prominent human rights organizations should be shut down, a move that stirred up public outrage and is the latest step in a months-long crackdown on rights activists, independent media and opposition supporters.
The Prosecutor General’s Office last month petitioned the Supreme Court to revoke the legal status of Memorial—an international human rights group that rose to prominence for its studies of political repression in the Soviet Union and currently encompasses more than 50 smaller groups in Russia and abroad.
The court on Tuesday ruled in favor of the prosecution, which charged at the hearing that Memorial “creates a false image of the USSR as a terrorist state, whitewashes and rehabilitates Nazi criminals.”
A video tweeted by the independent Mediazona news outlet showed a large crowd of people in front of the courthouse chanting “Disgrace!” in response to the ruling.
Memorial, also known in Russia as International Memorial, was declared a “foreign agent” in 2016—a label that implies additional government scrutiny and carries strong pejorative connotations that can discredit the targeted organization. The prosecutors claimed the group had repeatedly broken regulations that obliged it to declare itself as an agent of foreign countries and also tried to conceal this fact in the lawsuit it was filed to stop it.
Memorial and its supporters have maintained the accusations are politically motivated, and the organization’s leaders have vowed to continue their work even if the court shuts it down.
“Of course, nothing is over with this,” Maria Eismont, one of the lawyers that represented the group in court, said after the ruling. “We will appeal, and Memorial will live on with the people—because it’s the people behind it serving this great cause first and foremost. The work will continue.”
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The public has expressed outrage at the pressure placed on this group. Many prominent people have supported it since then. A number of people were detained Tuesday in connection with a protest at the courthouse.
Memorial’s sister organization, the Memorial Human Rights Center, is up for closure as well, with a court hearing in the Moscow City Court scheduled for Wednesday morning.
Russian authorities increased their pressure on journalists and media outlets in the last months. Some were declared “undesirable”—a label that outlaws organizations in Russia—or accused of links to “undesirable” groups, several were forced to shut down or disband themselves to prevent further prosecution.
On Saturday, the authorities blocked the website of OVD-Info—a prominent legal aid group that focuses on political arrests—and urged social media platforms to take down its accounts after a court ruled that the website contained materials that “justify actions of extremist and terrorist groups.” The group rejected the charges as politically driven.
OVD Info strongly condemned Memorial’s closing.
“Memorial is an institution of national memory about the times of the Great Terror and Soviet repressions,” the group said in a statement.
“To shut down such an institution is to publicly justify Stalin’s repressions,” it said. “It is a clear signal both to society and to the elites: ‘Yes, repressions were necessary and useful to the Soviet state in the past, and we need them today as well.’”
Amnesty International echoed the group’s sentiment. “The closure of International Memorial represents a direct assault on the rights to freedom of expression and association. The authorities’ use of the ‘foreign agents’ law to dissolve the organization is a blatant attack on civil society that seeks to blur the national memory of state repression,” Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia director, said in a statement Tuesday.
“The decision to shut down International Memorial is a grave insult to victims of the Russian Gulag and must be immediately overturned,” she added.
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Five of the five supporters of Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader in prison were also taken into custody on Tuesday. Earlier this year, a court in Moscow outlawed Navalny’s organizations—the Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his country-wide network of regional offices—as extremist, exposing their staff members and supporters to prosecution.
Ksenia Fadeyeva is one of five activists being held and faces charges for forming an extremist organization. Fadeyeva used to run Navalny’s regional office in the Siberian city of Tomsk, and in last year’s election won a seat in the city legislature.
Lilia Chanysheva (another Navalny ally) was detained and sentenced to prison in November on the same charges. She used to head Navalny’s office in the Russian region of Bashkortostan and is facing up to 10 years in prison, if convicted.
Navalny himself is serving 2½ years in prison for violating the terms of his probation from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that is widely seen as politically motivated. The politician was arrested in January upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin—accusations that Russian officials reject.
Many of his closest aides have been charged with various crimes and are now in Russia.
Also on Tuesday, another prominent human rights organization—the Civic Assistance Committee that helps refugees and migrants in Russia—said the authorities were evicting it from an office in Moscow it had been allowed to occupy free of charge for years.
Moscow officials gave the group a notice nullifying the agreement that allowed the use of the space for free and ordered them to move within one month.
“I link it to the overall trend of destroying civil society in Russia,” Civic Assistance Committee head Svetlana Gannushkina told Mediazona.