MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that one of the country’s oldest and most prominent human rights organizations must be shut down, a move that sparked public outrage. and is the latest step in a months-long crackdown on human rights activists, independent media and opposition supporters.
The attorney general’s office last month asked the Supreme Court to revoke the legal status of Memorial – an international human rights group that became known for its studies of political repression in the Soviet Union and which currently includes more than 50 small groups in Russia and abroad.
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The court ruled on Tuesday in favor of the prosecution, which charged during the hearing that Memorial “creates a false image of the USSR as a terrorist state, whitewashes and rehabilitates Nazi criminals.”
A video tweeted by independent outlet Mediazona showed a large crowd of people outside the courthouse chanting “Disgrace!” in response to judgment.
Memorial, also known in Russia as the International Memorial, was declared a “foreign agent” in 2016 – a label that involves additional government scrutiny and carries strong derogatory connotations that can discredit the targeted organization. In their lawsuit to shut it down, prosecutors alleged the group repeatedly violated regulations requiring it to mark itself as a foreign agent and attempted to cover up the designation.
Memorial and its supporters argued that the charges were politically motivated, and the organization’s leaders pledged to continue their work even if the court stops it.
“Of course, nothing is finished with this,” said Maria Eismont, one of the lawyers who represented the group in court, after the decision. “We will appeal, and Memorial will live with the people – because it is the people behind who serve this great cause first and foremost. The work will continue. »
The pressure on the group has sparked public outrage, with many prominent figures expressing support this month. Several people were reportedly arrested on Tuesday for picketing outside the courthouse.
Memorial’s sister organization, the Memorial Human Rights Center, is also set to close, with a hearing in the Moscow City Court scheduled for Wednesday morning.
In recent months, Russian authorities have stepped up pressure on rights groups, media outlets and individual journalists, appointing dozens of foreign agents. Some have been declared “undesirable” – a label that bans organizations in Russia – or accused of links to “undesirable” groups, with several forced to close or disband to avoid further prosecution.
On Saturday, authorities blocked the website of OVD-Info – a leading legal aid group that focuses on political arrests – and urged social media platforms to delete its accounts after a court ruled that the website contained material that “justifies the actions of extremist and terrorist groups.” The group dismissed the charges as politically motivated.
OVD-Info condemned the decision to close Memorial.
“Memorial is a national memorial institution on the era of the Great Terror and Soviet repressions,” the group said in a statement.
“To close such an institution is to publicly justify Stalin’s repressions,” he said. “It’s a clear signal both to society and to the elites: ‘Yes, repressions were necessary and helpful to the Soviet state in the past, and we need them today too.'”
Amnesty International echoed the group’s sentiment. “The closure of the International Memorial represents a direct attack on the rights to freedom of expression and association. The authorities’ use of the ‘foreign agents’ law to disband the organization is a blatant attack on civil society that seeks to cloud the national memory of state repression,” said Marie Struthers, director of Amnesty International for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, in a statement Tuesday.
“The decision to close International Memorial is a grave insult to the victims of the Russian Gulag and must be reversed immediately,” she added.
Also on Tuesday, five allies of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny were taken into custody. Earlier this year, a Moscow court banned Navalny’s organizations — the Anti-Corruption Foundation and its nationwide network of regional offices — as extremists, exposing their staff members and supporters to prosecution.
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One of the five detained activists, Ksenia Fadeyeva, is reportedly accused of forming an extremist group. Fadeyeva headed Navalny’s regional office in the Siberian city of Tomsk and in last year’s elections won a seat in the city’s legislature.
Another Navalny ally, Lilia Chanysheva, was arrested and jailed in November on similar charges. She ran Navalny’s office in Russia’s Bashkortostan region and faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Navalny himself is serving a 2.5-year prison sentence for violating the terms of his probation following a 2014 embezzlement conviction, widely seen as politically motivated. The politician was arrested in January on his return from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from nerve agent poisoning he blames on the Kremlin – charges Russian officials deny.
Most of its key allies have been prosecuted this year on various criminal charges and have left Russia.
Also on Tuesday, another prominent human rights organization – the Civic Assistance Committee which helps refugees and migrants in Russia – said authorities were expelling her from an office in Moscow that she had been allowed to occupy for free for years.
Moscow city officials handed the group a document canceling the agreement allowing the use of space without compensation and ordered them to leave within a month.
“I make the connection with the general tendency to destroy civil society in Russia,” Civic Assistance Committee chairwoman Svetlana Gannushkina told Mediazona.