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Russia is shutting down its oldest human rights group

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. Associated Press

Story at a glance

  • Russia’s Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled to dissolve Memorial International, Russia’s oldest human rights group.
  • Prosecutors on Tuesday accused Memorial of violating Russia’s law on foreign agents, which Memorial says it has taken great care in adhering to.
  • Memorial has been studying political repressions by the former Soviet Union and present-day Russian government since 1992, according to the group’s website.

Russia’s Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the closure of Memorial International, the nation’s oldest and arguably most prominent human rights group. It’s the latest of multiple recent actions taken by President Vladimir Putin to curb rights advocacy or political opposition.

Memorial International, often abbreviated to Memorial, has studied “political repressions” by the former Soviet Union and present-day Russian government since 1992. Its predecessor, an earlier Moscow-based organization also named Memorial, was founded in 1987, according to the group’s website.

Memorial’s objectives have included promoting the development of civil society and a democratic state that excludes the possibility of a return to totalitarianism. It has also worked to restore “historical truth” by publishing information on crimes and human rights violations committed by past regimes and by offering support to victims’ families.

Prosecutors on Tuesday accused Memorial of violating Russia’s foreign agents law, which has been used to target human rights groups, activists, and journalists in the past, according to The Washington Post. The court ruled Memorial would be liquidated and its structural units abolished because of the group’s failure to add a foreign agent label to its materials.


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Memorial has said it has taken great care to meet the requirements of Russia’s law on foreign agents, and the court’s verdict represents something much more insidious than simply upholding legislation.

“The real reason for Memorial’s closure is that the prosecutor’s office doesn’t like Memorial’s work rehabilitating the victims of Soviet terror,” the group’s lawyer, Tatiana Glushkova, told CNN. She said Memorial will appeal the court’s decision.

The verdict also leaves the fate of Memorial’s archives and databases, containing the names of millions of victims, as well as files on thousands of people who worked for the Soviet secret police from 1935 to 1939, hanging in the balance.

Putin has cracked down more harshly on what his government calls foreign agents or extremists since a 2020 constitutional referendum allowed him to remain in power possibly until 2036. The country’s leading opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, was poisoned last year by State agents, according to the U.S. State Department.

Human rights groups and advocates on Tuesday condemned the court’s verdict.

In a tweet, Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, called the decision “heartbreaking” and “another blow to civil society.”

Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asian division of Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter that “today’s ruling is heralding a new era of repression.”

Lana Estemirova, the daughter of former Memorial board member Natalya Estemirova, who was murdered in 2009 in Chechnya for her human rights work, wrote in response to the verdict: “My mother always used to say: ‘It can’t get any worse than this.’ Turns out it can.”


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