Protest at Russian court as future of rights group Memorial hangs in balance

Judge orders recess in case deciding whether group should be shut down under ‘foreign agents’ law

A Russian court has begun hearing arguments on the liquidation of International Memorial, a human rights group founded to research and inform the public about state-sponsored crimes and repression under the Soviet Union.

Prosecutors have said the organisation should be shut down for violating Russia’s contentious “foreign agents” law, which the government has increasingly used to punish and close organisations it deems unfriendly.

A judge ordered a recess until the middle of December, leaving the rights group’s fate uncertain but raising the possibility that it could be given a reprieve. The group has said it believes the judge’s decision will be political.

Members of Russian civil society and from western governments have voiced strong support for Memorial, one of Russia’s oldest human rights groups. Diplomats from more than 20 countries, including the US and UK, attended the hearing.

On Thursday, the presidents of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia expressed concern regarding “historical revisionism in Russia and specifically the possible closure of Memorial”.

The organisation was “ready to tell the whole truth about an inconvenient history and human rights violations committed by totalitarian regimes,” the statement said.

A crowd of more than 100 human rights activists, students and academics, politicians and others milled on the streets outside Russia’s supreme court in downtown Moscow, waiting for word on the organisation’s fate.

Police made at least three arrests for picketing as protesters took out posters in support of the organisation, which was co-founded by the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov in the late 1980s.

“It is impossible to murder the memory of a people,” read one of the posters. “We are surviving in poverty, powerlessness and almost without hope.” The picketer, an elderly woman, was quickly arrested and bundled away by police.

Some believed a decision to dissolve the organisation was inevitable, citing a political shift in Russia away from examining the crimes of previous governments in favour of celebrating Soviet achievements.

“It’s just incredibly heartless, cowardly,” said Vadim Ivaschenko, an engineer who was outside the court. “This is our history. I have great respect for what Memorial does. [Closing] it would be like shutting a door on an entire era of our past.”

Inside the courtroom on Thursday, prosecutors argued that the organisation had “systematically violated” its requirements under the “foreign agents” law by failing to affix a text warning on all of its publications.

One long exchange between prosecutors and the acting director, Yelena Zhemkova, focused on whether her business cards identified the organisation as a foreign agent and when she had them printed.

The judge also turned down a number of appeals from the defence, including calling witnesses who could testify about working with the organisation.

Zhemkova argued it would be wrong to shut an organisation that helps people and “helps preserve shared memory” on a “technicality.”


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