Russia’s Supreme Court is hearing a petition Thursday to shut down one of the country’s oldest and most prominent human rights groups — a move that has elicited public outrage and is part of a months-long crackdown on activists, independent media and opposition supporters.
The Prosecutor General’s Office earlier this month petitioned the Supreme Court to revoke the legal status of Memorial, an international human rights group that rose to prominence for its studies of political repression in the Soviet Union and now encompasses more than 50 smaller groups in Russia and abroad.
In 2016, Memorial was declared a “foreign agent” in Russia — a label that implies additional government scrutiny and carries strong pejorative connotations that can discredit the targeted organization. Prosecutors allege that the group repeatedly violated regulations obligating it to mark itself as a “foreign agent” and tried to conceal the designation.
Memorial and its supporters have maintained the accusations are politically motivated.
Government pressure has sparked public outrage
Alexander Korobochkin, who now lives in Montreal, has turned to Memorial for research on both of his grandfathers. One was a pilot posthumously exonerated after being accused of espionage and killed, and the other a military officer who was arrested and sent to a Stalin-era gulag camp in 1950 for 10 years.
“If Memorial is closed and no one remembers this [repression], how will the next generation be able to live without this memory?” said Korobochkin.
Pressure on the group has sparked public outrage, with many prominent figures speaking out in its support this month. As a hearing into the petition to shutter Memorial commenced on Thursday, large crowds gathered in front of the Supreme Court building in a show of support for the organization.
President of Estonia tweets concerns on behalf of leaders of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia :
We, the Presidents of <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Poland?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Poland</a>, <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Lithuania?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Lithuania</a>, <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Latvia?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Latvia</a> and <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Estonia?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Estonia</a> express our concern regarding historical revisionism in <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Russia?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Russia</a> and specifically the possible closure of <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Memorial?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Memorial</a>.
There are reports at least three people have been detained — among them two elderly women holding banners that read “Thank you, Memorial, for remembering us” and “You can’t kill the memory of the people.”
It remains unclear whether Memorial plans to continue working without being a legal entity if the court rules to revoke its status.
In recent months, the Russian government has designated a number of independent media outlets, journalists and human rights groups as “foreign agents,” most prominently the network associated with now-imprisoned Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. At least two human rights groups disbanded to avoid a tougher crackdown.
Alena Kozlova, head of Memorial’s archive, told Reuters it was possible the legal action against the group was retribution for its uncompromising efforts to expose dictator Joseph Stalin’s crimes and Soviet repressions.
Amnesty secretary-general tweets closure of Memorial would be an “irreparable loss”:
The closure of <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Memorial?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Memorial</a> will be an irreparable loss not just to Russia, but to all of us. We must not let it happen.<br>I call on the Russian authorities to drop their lawsuit to close down Memorial and let Memorial and other human rights groups work freely in the country.