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Russian court orders shutdown of renowned rights organization

Police detaining a demonstrator in Moscow
Police detain a demonstrator as people gather in front of Russia’s Supreme Court on Tuesday.
(Associated Press)

Russia’s Supreme Court ruled Tuesday 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 Tuesday ruled in favor of the prosecution, which alleged at the hearing that Memorial “creates a false image of the USSR as a terrorist state, [and] whitewashes and rehabilitates Nazi criminals.”

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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 results in additional government scrutiny and carries strong pejorative connotations that can discredit the targeted organization. In their lawsuit to shut it down, prosecutors said the group repeatedly violated regulations obliging it to mark itself as a foreign agent and tried to conceal the designation.

Memorial and its supporters maintain that the accusations are politically motivated, and the organization’s leaders have vowed to continue their work even if the court shuts it down.

Daria Navalnaya displayed a framed picture of her imprisoned father while accepting the European Union’s top human rights award in his place.

“Of course, nothing is over with this,” Maria Eismont, one of the lawyers who 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.”

Pressure on the group has sparked public outrage, with many prominent figures speaking out in its support this month. Several people were reportedly detained Tuesday for picketing the courthouse.

Memorial’s sister organization, the Memorial Human Rights Center, is liable to be closed as well, with a court hearing in the Moscow City Court scheduled for Wednesday morning.

Russian authorities in recent months have increased their pressure on rights groups, media outlets and individual journalists, naming dozens as foreign agents. 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 to prevent further prosecution.

As a new Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Russian newspaper editor Dmitry Muratov has downplayed the buzz around his name.

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 condemned the ruling to shut down Memorial.

“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 the 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 that 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’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia director, said in a statement.

“The decision to shut down International Memorial is a grave insult to victims of the Russian Gulag and must be immediately overturned,” she added.

Five allies of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny were taken into custody Tuesday. Earlier this year, a court in Moscow outlawed Navalny’s organizations — the Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his nationwide network of regional offices — as extremist, exposing their staff members and supporters to prosecution.

So far, tensions between Washington and Moscow over Ukraine have been restricted to a war of words, but could it flare into something more dangerous?

One of the five activists detained Tuesday, Ksenia Fadeyeva, is reportedly facing charges of forming an extremist group. 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.

Another Navalny ally, Lilia Chanysheva, was arrested and jailed in November on similar charges. She used to head Navalny’s office in the Russian region of Bashkortostan and faces 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.

Most of his top allies have faced prosecution this year on various criminal charges and have left Russia.

To Americans, the end of the Soviet Union 30 years ago is a done deal. To Putin, it’s a catastrophe he longs to reverse.

Also on Tuesday, another prominent human rights organization, the Civic Assistance Committee, which helps refugees and migrants in Russia, said the authorities were evicting it from a Moscow office that it had been allowed to occupy free of charge for years.

City officials handed the group a document voiding the agreement allowing its use of the space and ordered it to leave within a month.

“I link it to the overall trend of destroying civil society in Russia,” Civic Assistance Committee head Svetlana Gannushkina told Mediazona.


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