Russian court orders shutdown of renowned rights group

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Police officers detain a demonstrator as people gather in front of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021. Russia’s Supreme Court has ruled that one of the country’s oldest and most prominent human rights organizations should be shut down. The move is the latest step in a months-long crackdown on dissent. 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. (AP Photo)

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. 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.

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.”

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

Also Tuesday, five allies of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny were taken into custody. 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.

One of the five detained activists, 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 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.

Most of his top allies have faced prosecution this year on various criminal charges and have left 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 city officials handed the group a document voiding the agreement allowing the use of the space without compensation 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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