Russia’s prominent human rights group Memorial in jeopardy of losing legal status


Russia’s Supreme Court on Thursday started hearing a petition to shut down one of the country’s oldest and most prominent human rights groups, a move that elicited public outrage and is part of a months-long crackdown on activists, independent media and opposition supporters.

Several hours into the hearing, the court decided to adjourn until Dec. 14.

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.

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Government pressure sparks public outrage

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.

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.

Oleg Orlov, chair of Memorial, said Thursday that the group will appeal the ruling, if the court decides to shut it down, and will continue operating.

“We will appeal up to the European court level, and we’ll keep working one way or another. It may be not within the would-be liquidated international Memorial, but we also have the Moscow Memorial and many Memorials in Russia’s regions — until they get liquidated,” he said.

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.

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At least three people reportedly were 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.”

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.

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