Russian court orders closure of country’s oldest human rights group

Memorial was founded in late 1980s to document repression under the Soviet regime

Russia's supreme court has ordered the closure of the country's oldest and best-known civil society group, Memorial, amid a fierce crackdown on critics of the Kremlin and its efforts to portray the Soviet Union as a force for good.

Russia branded Memorial a "foreign agent" several years ago for receiving funds from abroad, under a law that has now been expanded to target many media outlets and activists that investigate or challenge Russian president Vladimir Putin and his allies.

Judge Alla Nazarova ruled that Memorial International – the central structure of an organisation that includes regional branches across Russia and a prominent human rights centre – should be shut down for repeatedly failing to mark all of its publications with the "foreign agent" label.

Prosecutors also accused Memorial of supporting extremists, and of besmirching the reputation of Russia and the Soviet Union by investigating state repression of the communist era and commemorating its millions of victims.

"It is obvious that Memorial, profiting from the subject of political repression in the 20th century, creates a false impression of the USSR as a terrorist state, and whitewashes and rehabilitates Nazi criminals who have the blood of Soviet citizens on their hands," state prosecutor Alexei Zhafyarov told the court in Moscow.

‘The truth’

“Why should we, descendants of the victors [in the second World War]\, now be forced to watch as traitors to the motherland and Nazi collaborators are rehabilitated? Probably because someone is paying for that. And this is the real reason why Memorial so fiercely rejects its status as a foreign agent,” he added.

Memorial said it would appeal the verdict and keep working while the legal fight continued; the next battle is scheduled for Wednesday, when a Moscow court may rule in a similar case brought by state prosecutors against Memorial’s human rights centre.

“Memorial is not an organisation, it is not even a social movement. Memorial is the need of the citizens of Russia for the truth about its tragic past, about the fate of many millions of people. And no one will be able to eliminate this need,” it said in a statement.

‘Undesirables’

US ambassador to Moscow John Sullivan said the decision was "a blatant and tragic attempt to suppress freedom of expression and erase history".

Branches of Memorial emerged around the Soviet Union during a period of liberalisation in the late 1980s, and then united under an umbrella organisation that investigated and chronicled Soviet repression and the Gulag prison camp system.

It has also spoken out against the growing number of politically motivated prosecutions and abuses by Russia’s security services, which have regained huge power during the 21-year rule of Mr Putin, a former KGB officer who has called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”.

Dozens of Russian NGOs, media outlets, activists and journalists have been officially branded as "foreign agents" or "undesirables" during 2021, which began with opposition leader Alexei Navalny being arrested and jailed for 2½ years when he returned from Germany following his recovery from a near-fatal poisoning in Siberia.