Russian court orders closure of leading rights group Memorial

Memorial, a decades-old organisation famed for documenting repression, found guilty of violating ‘foreign agent’ law.

The entrance to the office of the Memorial human rights group in Moscow, Russia
Memoria has spoken out against the repression of critics under Russian President Vladimir Putin [File: Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters]

Russia’s Supreme Court has ruled that Memorial, the country’s best-known human rights group, should be shut down, marking the latest step in a sweeping crackdown on rights activists, independent media and opposition supporters.

Last month, prosecutors accused the Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Centre and its parent structure, Memorial International, of violating Russia’s “foreign agent” law, asking the court to dissolve them.

The court on Tuesday ruled in favour 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”, referring to the Soviet Union.

Memorial, which has more recently spoken out against the repression of critics under Russian President Vladimir Putin, dismissed the lawsuit against it as politically motivated.

“This is a bad signal showing that our society and our country are moving in the wrong direction,” said Memorial Board Chairman Jan Raczynski, according to the TASS news agency.

The Interfax news agency quoted a lawyer for the group as saying that it would appeal, in Russia and at the European Court of Human Rights.

Reacting to the court decision, Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia director, condemned the move, saying that by “closing down the organisation, Russian authorities trample on the memory of millions of victims lost to the Gulag”.

Struthers said the decision to close down Memorial should be “immediately overturned” as it represented “a direct assault on the rights to freedom of expression and association” and “a blatant attack on civil society that seeks to blur the national memory of state repression”.

‘Foreign agent’ designation

The ruling came after the Memorial Human Rights Centre was put on the government’s register of “foreign agents” in 2015, a move that entailed numerous restrictions on its activities. Memorial International was added a year later.

The label has negative Stalin-era connotations and requires individuals or groups to disclose sources of funding and mark all publications – including social media posts – with a disclaimer tag.

In their lawsuit to shut it down, prosecutors alleged that the group repeatedly violated regulations obliging it to mark itself as a “foreign agent”, and tried to conceal the designation. They also accused it of condoning “terrorism” and “extremism”.

Memorial has denied any serious violations, labelling claims it broke the law or backed “terror” and “extremist’ groups as “absurd”, and said its members would continue their work even if it is dissolved.

Pressure on the group has meanwhile sparked public outrage. Many prominent figures spoke out in support of its work this month and several people were reportedly detained on Tuesday for picketing the court.

‘Ever more repressive’

In recent months, the Russian government has designated a number of independent media outlets, journalists and human rights groups as “foreign agents”. At least two disbanded to avoid a tougher crackdown.

Moscow has said it is simply enforcing laws to thwart “extremism” and shield the country from foreign influence.

Memorial had been compiling a list of political prisoners, including Putin’s most prominent domestic opponent Alexey Navalny, whose political organisations were shut down this year.

In October, it said the number of political prisoners in Russia had risen to 420 compared with 46 in 2015.

Irina Shcherbakova, a senior member of Memorial, said Kremlin was sending a clear signal by banning the group.

“[That is,] ‘We are doing whatever we feel like with civil society. We will put whoever we want behind bars. We will close down whoever we want’,” she said. “The dictatorship is becoming ever more repressive.”

Source: News Agencies