Russian Court Orders Prominent Human Rights Group to Shut

The Supreme Court ruled that Memorial International, which chronicled political repression in Russia, must be liquidated.

By Ivan Nechepurenko

MOSCOW — Russia’s Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the liquidation of Memorial International, one of the nation’s oldest and most revered human rights organizations, which chronicled political repression and became a symbol of the country’s democratization that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The decision comes after a year of broad crackdown on opposition in Russia and more than three decades after Memorial was founded by a group of Soviet dissidents who believed that the country needed to reconcile with its traumatic past to move forward. In particular, the group dedicated itself to preserving the memory of the many thousands of Russians who died or were persecuted in forced labor camps during the Stalin era.

Over the past year, the Kremlin has moved aggressively to stifle dissent in the news media, in religious groups, on social networks and especially among activists and political opponents, hundreds of whom have been harassed, jailed or forced into exile.

Shutting down Memorial is another step in President Vladimir V. Putin’s effort to rewrite some of the most painful chapters in Russia’s history and soften the image of an often brutal regime during the Soviet era.

Memorial’s closure represents “a new step downward,” said Ilya Miklashevsky, 65, whose father and grandfather were jailed in the gulag, the infamous labor camps where Russians were forced to toil in coldblooded conditions. “The country is sleepily moving downhill.”

Sergei Mitrokhin, a Russian opposition politician, said that Memorial was “the last barrier on the way to complete Stalinization of the society and state.”

“What we have now is still lite Stalinism,” he said, speaking on Ekho Moskvy, a radio station. “I am afraid it can turn way worse,” Mr. Mitrokhin said. “It is a tragedy for our country.”

Memorial International oversees the archive of victims of Soviet repressions. Its database contains more than three million names — only a quarter of all victims, according to the organization’s estimates.

In a separate hearing on Wednesday, the Moscow City Court will rule on whether to shut down Memorial’s Human Rights Center, which compiles a list of current political prisoners in Russia. The center is accused of “justifying terrorist activities” by including members of banned religious organizations on this list.

The list includes Aleksei A. Navalny, the imprisoned Russian opposition leader, who was poisoned in a clandestine operation widely believed to be organized by the Russian special services.

The judge’s ruling cited what it said were repeated violations of the foreign agents law. Passed in 2012, the measure has been criticized by the country’s opposition as a vehicle intended by the Russian state to stifle all dissent in the country. It orders all organizations that receive foreign funding and engage in loosely defined political activity to label themselves as “foreign agents,” a designation that carries the stigma of being on the payroll of foreign governments.

Memorial’s lawyers dismissed all of the accusations against the group as unfounded and called its persecution “politically motivated.” They have said that Memorial has made every effort to comply with the requirements of the foreign agents law.

During the final hearing, as protesters gathered outside the courthouse, Aleksei Zhafyarov, the prosecutor, said Memorial only “speculated on the topic of political repressions” but that in reality it tried to portray the Soviet Union as “a terrorist state” and aimed to “rehabilitate Nazi criminals.”

Mr. Zhafyarov’s statements echoed earlier comments by Mr. Putin, who called Memorial “one of the most reputable organizations” during a meeting with his human rights council this month, but also accused it of glorifying Holocaust perpetrators.

Yelena Zhemkova, Memorial’s executive director, said that mistakes are possible in its gargantuan task of keeping a registry of repression victims, but that they are “always corrected.”

“What Memorial does represents 33 years of hard work of very many people,” Ms. Zhemkova told the court. “We work for the benefit of our people and our country.”

Ivan Nechepurenko has been a reporter with the Moscow bureau since 2015, covering politics, economics, sports, and culture in Russia and the former Soviet republics. He was born and raised in St. Petersburg, Russia. @INechepurenko • Facebook

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