Russia’s Oldest Human Rights Group Shut Down by Court Order

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The Russian Supreme Court has ordered Memorial, the country’s oldest human rights organization, to liquidate. The group’s goals included recovering the memories of the people who were persecuted during the Soviet era. The group ran afoul of Russian laws regarding its social media posts, as it failed to mark posts as a “foreign agent.”

The group’s legal status changed in 2016 when it accepted international funding. The Russian government considers non-profit organizations foreign agents if they accept funding from other countries.

The Prosecutors’ Case

Prosecutors characterized Memorial as a “public threat,” alleging that the group is funded by Western countries to demonize Russia’s history instead of focusing on the positive aspects of its past. “International Memorial… is almost entirely focused on distorting historic memory, first and foremost about the Great Fatherland War [World War Two],” insisted prosecutor Alexei Zhafyarov during closing arguments.

“Why should we, descendants of the victors, be ashamed and repent, rather than take pride in our glorious past? Memorial is probably paid by someone for that.”

Memorial’s Role in Russia

Memorial began operating in 1989 during the collapse of the Soviet Union. As the country reorganized into Russia, Western observers applauded Memorial for exposing the darkest aspects of the Soviet era. The group worked to expose the treatment of Soviet-era political prisoners, as well as organizing memorials for people who lost their lives under the Soviet regime.

In court, Memorial’s lawyers argued that the organization is a “friend to Russia,” not its enemy. Attorneys for the defense characterized the case as “Orwellian,” noting that the liquidation was ordered on a technicality.

Foreign Agents

Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has slid back into some Soviet-era practices. Memorial’s human rights division reports that the country is holding over 400 political prisoners, the highest number since the dissolution of the USSR. Under Putin, many human rights activists and organizations have been disregarded as “foreign agents,” often using dubious legal definitions.

Memorial vowed to fight the ruling on Tuesday. “We will challenge the decision of Russia’s Supreme Court in every possible way. And we will find legal ways to continue our work,” the organization’s statement reads.

“They chose us because we are strong and prominent and because we irritate them,” argues Oleg Orlov, a board member for the nonprofit group. “The authorities these days are politicizing history, but we say things they don’t like. We talk about the difficult pages of the past and that annoys them.”