Arguably in step with China, a court in Moscow ordered the closure of Russia’s Memorial Human Rights Centre on Wednesday, a day after its sister organization ~ Russia’s oldest human rights group ~ was forced to down shutters.
The Human Rights Centre maintains a list of individuals it has classified as political prisoners, notably the Kremlin critic, Alexei Navalny. The list includes Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims convicted of terrorism that the Memorial says were victims of “unproven charges based on fabricated evidence because of their religious affiliation”. Pozor! Pozor!” (Shame! Shame!), chanted supporters of the Memorial outside the court, wrapped up against a temperature of minus 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 people and organisations that work to advance human rights across the Russian Federation,” it added. State prosecutors had said the centre’s work justified terrorism and extremism, a charge that it has denied. They had also accused it of failing to systematically label its content as that of a “foreign agent”! ~ an official designation carrying pejorative Soviet-era connotations that it was given in 2014.
There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin, which says it does not interfere in court decisions which, incidentally, have made a travesty of human rights. The European Court of Human Rights on Wednesday told Russia to suspend the closure of the two Memorial organisations, while it continued to examine a 2013 application against Moscow’s foreign agent legislation. The centre operates a network of offices across the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus region, where it has documented rights abuses in places such as Chechnya and has provided legal and practical help to victims. Those offices will have to be shut unless the Centre wins an appeal. Anna Dobrovolskaya, the centre’s executive director, said outside the court that the authorities appeared set on purging all human rights groups, starting with Memorial.
The ruling, like the Supreme Court’s decision on Tuesday to shut down Memorial International, famous for chronicling and keeping alive the memory of Stalin-era crimes, was condemned by international rights groups. “In two days, Russia’s courts delivered a one-two punch to Russia’s human rights movement,” tweeted Rachel Denber of New York-based Human Rights Watch. “Almost exactly 30 years after the end of the Soviet era, authorities are setting new, repressive boundaries on what can be said about the past and what can be said and done about abuse in today’s Russia.”
The legal onslaught capped a year in which Navalny, the Kremlin’s leading critic, was jailed, his movement banned and many of his associates forced to flee. Moscow says it is simply thwarting extremism and shielding Russia from malign foreign influence, echoing what other repressive regimes say when crushing dissent.