Russian court orders memorial of recognized rights group to be closed


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Russia’s Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the shutdown of Memorial, Russia’s oldest human rights watchdog, for repeatedly violating the country’s law on foreign agents.

The group’s shutdown ends a year in which Russian authorities have cracked down on almost all forms of dissent, from opposition groups to Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny to independent news outlets and rights organizations.

State prosecutors argued that the group consistently refused to present itself as a “foreign agent” on its website and other published materials, as required. Memorial argued that there was “no legal basis” for the charges against him and called the law a tool to crack down on independent groups.

For Memorial supporters, the decision to liquidate the organization is a hammer blow to already besieged Russian civil society, and to efforts to come to terms with the country’s traumatic 20th century.

“Closing the Memorial is worse than a crime,” Soviet-era dissident and founding member Vyacheslav Igrunov told the Moscow Times.

“It’s a terrible mistake that will come back to bite the authorities.

Denounce repressions

Founded in the Twilight of the Soviet Union by nuclear physicist turned anti-Communist dissident Andrei Sakharov, Memorial aimed to support human rights in contemporary Russia while highlighting historic abuses in the USSR

As Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform program opened the door to discussions of Stalinist-era repressions, Memorial played a leading role in publicizing many of the Soviet Union’s worst excesses, including the Katyn massacre. in 1940 Polish prisoners of war.

In a joint statement last month, Gorbachev and Novaya Gazeta editor-in-chief and 2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dmitry Muratov warned against Memorial’s closure, saying the case has “caused anxiety and concern in the country, which we share.”

Among the countries of the former Soviet Union and the wider Communist bloc, the fate of Memorial – who investigated Soviet repressions against their citizens – sparked unease.

In a previous hearing in November, the Presidents of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia issued a joint statement condemn efforts to close the group.

A petition in favor of the organization had been signed by more than 138,000 people.

In the hours leading up to the verdict being announced on Tuesday, a group of around 200 Memorial supporters gathered outside the Supreme Court to show their support, despite the cold December.

For 23-year-old graduate economics student Artemy Korulko, Memorial’s fate was personal.

Korulko’s great-grandfather was shot dead as a Polish spy during Stalin’s purges in 1937, and Memorial had investigated his case when it was founded during the years of perestroika.

“I’m here to give my opinion. Memorial has helped my family, and it is my duty to return the favor now.

As supporters outside the courtroom awaited the verdict, a series of supporters were arrested for setting up lone pickets, eliciting cries of support from the assembled crowd.

Memory wars

For some observers, it was Memorial’s work in the historical field that placed it in the Kremlin’s sights.

As President Vladimir Putin presides over a limited rehabilitation of the Soviet past, including defending the wartime leadership and foreign policy of Joseph Stalin, Memorial’s investigation into the totalitarian past has fallen from official disgrace.

With Russia’s modern security services – the heirs to the Stalinist-era NKVD secret police – widely seen as having the president’s ear, slander against their predecessor organizations can be politically perilous.

Before the ruling, a state prosecutor argued in court that Memorial had blackened the Soviet Union’s war legacy, asking: “Why should we, the offspring of the overcomers, repent and be embarrassed, instead of being proud of our glorious past? “

“Memorial has become the main opponent of the official position on history,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank.

“The authorities imagine that if you destroy the organization, you can destroy its story as well.”

But as Russia’s post-Soviet political system took a more authoritarian turn, Memorial’s attention shifted to exposing modern-day abuses.

The organization’s work documenting human rights violations in war-torn Chechnya has implicated the Russian military, Chechen separatists and the local pro-Russian regime of Ramzan Kadyrov in atrocities. The 2009 murder of Natalia Estemirova, a local representative for Memorial, was widely viewed as retaliation for the group’s work.

Meanwhile, Memorial helped set up OVD-Info, a Moscow-based service that provides legal assistance to those jailed in protest rallies, and which recently joined its parent organization to be designated as a foreign agent.

For founder Igrunov, Memorial’s political work is likely what angered the Kremlin amid an all-out crackdown on Russian opposition and civil society groups.

“The authorities have come to fear what Memorial said,” he said. “This kind of work is no longer acceptable in Russia.

In 2014, Memorial became one of the first organizations covered by Russia’s 2012 Foreign Agents Act, under which groups accused of receiving foreign money are required to make lengthy financial statements and include the status on all the documents they produce.

Although the charges against Memorial formally relate to the organization’s failure to label books sold at an event in Moscow with the disclaimer required of “foreign agent” organizations, many Memorial supporters suspect the charges are motivated by revenge for his human rights work.

The Meduza news site has reported that Memorial’s violations of the Foreign Agents Act were reported by the local FSB office in Ingushetia, a small region in the North Caucasus with close ties to neighboring Chechnya.

“We are going to start from scratch”

However, despite the bleak legal outlook, Memorial veterans insist that the organization – which is highly decentralized and includes more than 60 branches in all 85 regions of Russia – will continue to exist, in one form or another. .

“In the worst case, we will start from scratch,” Elena Zhemkova, executive director of International Memorial, said at a recent press conference.

“We will find the money and we will find the facilities. “

However, recent actions against those who cooperate with Memorial suggest that the organization’s struggles will not end with today’s decision.

Over the weekend, Russian authorities blocked the OVD-Info website for allegedly promote “Terrorism and extremism”.

In 2016, Yury Dmitriyev, a historian who worked with Memorial to investigate Stalinist-era mass graves in Karelia, near the border with Finland, was arrested on charges of pedophilia.

His 2020 conviction and 13-year prison sentence were seen by some commentators as a wake-up call against those seeking to uncover the dark side of the Soviet past, and a harbinger of what may still be in store for them. .

Just one day before Memorial’s closure, Dmitriyev, 65, was extended by two years.

For some Memorial supporters gathered in front of the Supreme Court, the organization’s shutdown reflected an ever-widening net of repression on the part of the Russian authorities.

“There is no logic in this case, it is as if the courts are just acting out of habit now,” said Korulko, an economics student.

“The system can no longer stop.


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About Michael S. Montanez

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