Russia’s Supreme Court orders shutdown of renowned rights group

Russia’s Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that one of the country’s oldest and most noticeable human rights organizations should be shut down, a move that stirred up much 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 position 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 oversea.

The court on Tuesday ruled in favour of the prosecution, which charged at the hearing that Memorial “creates a false image of the U.S.S.R. 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.

Designated as ‘foreign agent’

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.

Supporters of the Memorial human rights group wearing confront masks with the words ‘The Memorial cannot be banned!’ gather in front of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation in Moscow on Tuesday. (Pavel Golovkin/The Associated Press)

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

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

Memorial’s sister organization, the Memorial Human Rights Center, is up for closure in addition, with a court hearing in the Moscow City Court scheduled for Wednesday morning.

Mounting pressure

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 confined the website of OVD-Info — a noticeable 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 pushed.

Criticism of ruling

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 in addition.”‘

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 closest overturned.”

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