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Russian Supreme Court shuts down top human rights group Memorial

A year that began with the arrest of prominent Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny ends with Russia's Supreme Court ordering the country's oldest human rights group to shutter.

(CN) — In a massive blow to Russian civil society, historical researchers and the families of Stalinist terror victims, Russia's Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the liquidation of Memorial International, the country's oldest and most prominent human rights watchdog.

The court's decision was condemned as a kind of point-of-no-return for civil society in Russia under the authoritarian rule of President Vladimir Putin and a brazen effort to shut down independent research into the Soviet Union's past crimes.

“It is heart-breaking, another blow to civil society in Russia or what is left of it,” said Agnes Callamard, the secretary general of Amnesty International.

In freezing temperatures, crowds gathered outside the Supreme Court and chanted “Shame.” At least one Memorial member protesting the verdict was carried off by police.

The nongovernmental organization was accused of not complying with its status as a “foreign agent,” a designation Russian prosecutors can place on media outlets, individuals and groups that receive foreign funding.

The 2012 foreign agent law has been used to crack down on opposition voices, such as groups linked to jailed Putin critic Alexei Navalny, who was arrested in January after he returned to Moscow following his alleged poisoning by Russian secret agents.  

Under the law, listed entities must identify themselves as foreign agents when they publish photographs, articles, essays and other works. The law is reminiscent of Soviet-era rules.

Targeting Memorial takes the crackdown to a new level, experts said.

Co-founded in 1987 shortly before the collapse of the U.S.S.R by Andrei Sakharov, a nuclear physicist and Soviet dissident who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, the group became a massive repository of information about Joseph Stalin's Great Terror, the political purge of millions of people deemed to be enemies. The repression led to the death of an estimated 1.5 million people in the Soviet Union's system of labor camps known as gulags.

In more recent years, an offshoot group – the Memorial Human Rights Center – has begun documenting current human rights abuses and spoken in support of people it considers political prisoners, such as Navalny. Prosecutors are seeking to shut down the Human Rights Center too.

Since its founding, Memorial and its research have become invaluable resources and uncovered some of the darkest corners in Soviet history.

“Memorial’s researchers and supporters dug through archives, created databases, interviewed victims and perpetrators, and organized conferences and exhibitions,” wrote Alexander Baunov, an expert with the Carnegie Moscow Center, in a piece for Foreign Policy. “They exposed the crimes of the Soviet security services and the criminals in their ranks.”

He said Memorial's work was supported by the Russian state in the 1990s, which tried to come to terms with the crimes of the Soviet past.

But he said Putin, a former KGB officer, and his regime see Memorial's work as a danger and wanted to take revenge on a group that exposes crimes committed by security services.

In the Supreme Court hearings, prosecutors accused Memorial of not only breaching the foreign agent law but of seeking to influence public opinion and government policies to harm Russia.

Previously, Putin even charged that Memorial advocated on behalf of “terrorist and extremist organizations.”

“It is obvious that Memorial creates a false image of the U.S.S.R as a terrorist state by speculating on the topic of political repression of the 20th century,” prosecutor Alexei Zhafyarov said during Tuesday's hearing.

He said the group's databases of victims of Stalinist repression included “Nazi offenders with blood of Soviet citizens on their hands.”

“This is why we, the descendants of [WWII] victors, are forced to watch for attempts to rehabilitate traitors of the motherland and Nazi collaborators,” he said, according to media reports.

In recent years, Russia has begun to cast its Soviet history under Stalin in a much more benign light and Putin has called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century.” Putin is seen as wanting to make Russia a great superpower again. It is now illegal to diminish the Soviet's efforts in World War II and insult war veterans.

Henry Reznik, a lawyer for Memorial, likened the prosecutor's comments to Soviet show trials against “enemies of the people” in the 1930s.

“The real issue is the rivalry over memory, which the Kremlin would like to monopolize,” Baunov said. He said the Putin regime wants to stop researchers from questioning the official narrative and keep archives closed to stop the names of investigators, judges and others involved in past cases to be revealed.

“Memorial’s problem is not that commemorating these crimes is taboo, but that it is competing with the Kremlin in an area of history that the Kremlin considers its own,” Baunov said. “The Kremlin’s position is that the victims died for the glory of the country. Looking too closely at the perpetrators and their methods could open old wounds and raise uncomfortable questions.”

Memorial's lawyers argued that the charges against the organization were false and that the group has complied with the law. They also pleaded with the court to save it from liquidation by highlighting its extensive work to help victims of Stalinist repression and educate children about the truth of their country's history.

Memorial has vowed to appeal the ruling, but its legal options are limited and it will likely be forced to shut down. But it has said that it will continue to operate through other means, perhaps with its affiliated groups across Russia carrying on its work.

“The prosecutors are not able to stop Memorial's work,” Jan Raczynski, the chairman of Memorial International, told the Interfax news agency.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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