Russia’s leading human rights organisations resist dissolution by the regime

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As 2021 drew to a close, Russia’s human rights community suffered severe blows, with courts ordering the liquidation of two of the country’s most renowned civil society institutions: Memorial Human Rights Centre (HRC) and International Memorial. These formidable organisations refuse, however, to capitulate to this existential threat and have now filed appeals. Our 192-member strong Federation—of which Memorial HRC is a part—will remain active in fighting for these iconic institutions to continue their courageous work, and supports other international actors, including the European Court of Human Rights, in fighting for the two Memorials to pursue their indispensable work.

Read op-ed published in Mediapart here (available in French).

Russian human rights community resists regime’s latest, most brazen threat

On 28 December, Russia’s Supreme Court moved to shut down International Memorial Society, one of Russia’s oldest non-governmental organisations (NGO), which uncovers and documents evidence of Soviet-era human rights abuses, locates burial sites, honours victims, and educates the public about human rights.

The following day, the Moscow City Court ordered the dissolution of its sister organisation, Memorial Human Rights Centre, which represents thousands of victims of human rights violations in domestic and international courts; maintains a list of political prisoners; and provides legal assistance to political prisoners, refugees, and migrants. These closures constitute nothing less than a political act of retaliation against human rights defenders.

Today, Memorial HRC appeals the Moscow City Court’s decision ordering its closure, following International Memorial’s recent appeal challenging the Supreme Court’s order to liquidate it. If the appeals are denied, the December 2021 rulings would mark the beginning of a new, sombre chapter in Russia’s modern history.

Both organisations have been a thorn in the side of authorities; the move to dismantle them was not unexpected and serves to consolidate the Kremlin’s power over both independent civil society actors and the historical narrative.

FIDH stands staunchly by the two Memorials

In November 2021, FIDH along with Russian and international rights groups, swiftly issued a joint statement denouncing state prosecutors’ filing of lawsuits seeking to shut them down; FIDH and 55 of its other member organisations from around the world issued a statement in solidarity with our Russian colleagues.

In response to the threat of closure, FIDH filed two separate amicus curiae to the Russian Supreme Court and Moscow City Court in support of International Memorial and Memorial HRC respectively, emphasising that accusations of the Prosecutor General’s Office, and the Moscow Prosecutor, respectively, are politically motivated and must be dropped. They contradict international human rights law and the Constitution of the Russian Federation relating to freedom of association and expression, and will accelerate the dismantling of Russia’s civil society.

An FIDH representative attended the first hearings in the trials against both Memorials in order to assess compliance with international standards on the right to a fair trial and to document potential violations of the defendants’ rights by the courts. At the same time, FIDH organised a live Twitter thread on the trials in English, which still can be accessed for a verbatim summary of the hearings.

As the courts pronounced on the liquidation of both Memorials, FIDH went on to strongly condemn these brazen politically motivated rulings that doubled down on state efforts to control the historical narrative and disempower civil society. FIDH, through the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, also issued an urgent appeal calling the country’s authorities to immediately reverse the decisions to liquidate the NGOs and repeal the problematic foreign agents law that was weaponised to incriminate them.

The government’s attitude towards independent civil society, media, and human rights defenders has grown increasingly hostile over the past decade. The human rights work of both organisations—bastions of Russia’s increasingly vulnerable civil society—is legitimate and must be allowed to continue. In the following weeks, FIDH plans to publish a trial observation report, highlighting numerous violations of international fair trial norms and standards committed by the Supreme Court of Russia and the Moscow City Court in their consideration of the cases of Memorial International and HRC Memorial, respectively.

Foreign agents law

The coordinated attack against the two Memorials is the culmination of a repressive trend that can be traced back to 2012. The trumped-up legal grounds for the closures included failure to comply with the so-called foreign agents law, requiring entities receiving funds from abroad to label themselves as “foreign agents,” which carries stigma from Soviet times of being a spy or a traitor. The advent of such legislation, which contradicts both domestic and international law, dates back to 2012, when President Vladimir Putin oversaw the adoption of a slew of repressive laws to crack down on civil society after his reelection (see an overview of 2012-2017 legislation here).

In recent years, additional laws have expanded the scope of foreign agent legislation to include human rights defenders, journalists, and even ordinary individuals. Those who engage in politics and receive funds from foreign countries risk fines and time in prison.

December’s orders dissolving the two Memorials constitute an existential threat to an already beleaguered human rights community in Russia [1]. They must be challenged. Memorial is contesting these politically motivated rulings, and FIDH urges the courts to reverse the rulings. Memorial has appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, which has already asked Russia to suspend the decision following an interim measures ruling based on European Court of Human Rights’ Rules of Court.

Russia’s foreign agents legislation mirrors that of several other countries, a trend that FIDH recently mapped and denounced. Such laws, from Ethiopia to Nicaragua and beyond, aim to curb NGOs’ activities by depriving them of means and discrediting them.

A monopoly on historical memory

The shutdown of International Memorial attempts to neutralise a challenge to the homogeneity of the official historical narrative in Russia—one of a glorious Soviet past. The organisation has striven for over three decades to preserve memory of Soviet-era repression, including famine, political purges, summary executions, and gulags. Such efforts are perceived as hostile threats contradicting and undermining the official version of history: that of a respected superpower that saved Europe from the Nazi scourge.

Control over the historical narrative of the Soviet past has been used as a tool to consolidate authoritarian rule. Building Russia’s collective identity around Soviet victory in the Second World War, the regime attacks civil society activists, non-governmental organisations, historians—such as Yuri Dmitriev—and others working to keep alive a historical memory by identifying perpetrators and victims of the likes of the Great Terror, Joseph Stalin’s 1937-38 campaign of deadly political repression. Given the historical nature of much of International Memorial’s work, its targeted closure by authorities can be considered in a broader context of crimes against history (see FIDH’s 2021 report on the matter).

To learn more and find out what you can do, check out the page of OVD-Info, an independent media project:

International Memorial was established in the late 1980s by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov and other Soviet-era dissidents to investigate the millions of murders perpetrated under Joseph Stalin and campaign for the rights of political prisoners and the politically oppressed. Memorial Human Rights Centre, a member of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) since 2016, focuses on political persecution in present-day Russia, particularly in the North Caucasus, providing legal representation to victims of rights abuses, dealing with rights of migrants, and supporting political prisoners.

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