Russia’s Memorial Human Rights Center has been ordered to close by a court in Moscow, the day after its sister organization – Russia’s oldest human rights group – was forced to close.
- The Center for Human Rights maintains an ongoing list of persons it classifies as political prisoners
- State prosecutors said the center’s work justified terrorism and extremism
- UN Office for Human Rights said the decision further weakened Russia’s “dwindling human rights society”
The Center for Human Rights maintains an ongoing list of individuals it classifies as political prisoners, including Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
The list includes Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims convicted of terrorism, which the Memorial says were victims of “unproven accusations based on fabricated evidence because of their religious affiliation”.
“Pozor! Pozor!” (Shame! Shame!) Memorial fans sang off the field, wrapped up in a temperature of -12 degrees Celsius.
The UN Human Rights Office in Geneva said Russian courts had decided to “dissolve two of Russia’s most respected human rights groups and further weaken the country’s dwindling human rights community”.
“We urge the Russian authorities to protect and support the people and organizations working for the promotion of human rights throughout the Russian Federation,” it added.
State prosecutors had said the center’s work justified terrorism and extremism, something it denied.
They had also accused it of not systematically describing its contents as “a foreign agent” – an official term with derogatory Soviet-era connotations, as it was given in 2014.
There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin, which says it does not interfere in court decisions.
The center operates a network of offices across the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus region, where it has documented violations of rights in places like Chechnya and provided legal and practical assistance to the victims.
These offices shall be closed unless the Center wins an appeal.
Anna Dobrovolskaya, the center’s executive director, said outside court that the authorities appeared willing to clean up all human rights groups, starting with the Memorial.
The work of the rights group ‘bothered someone’
“We can not say that this was a complete surprise to us,” she said.
“There was a feeling that the space (for rights work) is shrinking. A lot of people will get really bored when they see these events, and a lot of people will write about the early Middle Ages and dark times.”
She said the ruling would have a relaxing effect on other rights activists.
“Clearly, our work had become too awkward and bothered anyone.”
The ruling, like the Supreme Court’s decision on Tuesday to close Memorial International, was famous for chronicling and keeping alive the memory of the crimes of the Stalin era, condemned by international rights groups.
“In two days, Russia’s courts delivered a one-to-two blow to Russia’s human rights movement,” tweeted Rachel Denber of New York-based Human Rights Watch.
The legal attack limited a year in which Navalny, the Kremlin’s leading critic, was imprisoned, his movement banned, and many of his staff forced to flee.
Moscow says it is simply thwarting extremism and protecting Russia from malicious foreign influence.
Critics say Vladimir Putin, who has held power as president or prime minister since 1999, and in opposition to the West on everything from Ukraine to Syria, is turning back time to the Soviet era, when all disagreement was crushed.
Memorial was established in the last years of the Soviet Union and originally investigated the crimes of the Soviet period, but later also began to inquire into the atrocities of today.
An out-of-court supporter who gave only his first name, Yegor, said the Memorial Human Rights Center ruling was “shocking” to the Russian people.
“It was a really useful organization that defended the rights of innocent people who were persecuted for their beliefs,” he said.
“There needs to be an opposition, people with different views. That’s what the principles of political competition are about.”