Defenders of Russia’s largest rights group Memorial on Thursday urged the Supreme Court to dismiss a case in order to dismiss it, saying the ruling would mark a dark day for the country.
In court for alleged violations of its designation as a “foreign agent”, Memorial faces its greatest threat since its founding by Soviet dissidents, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov in 1989.
A pillar of Russian civil society, Memorial has amassed a huge archive of Soviet-era crimes and has campaigned tirelessly for human rights in Russia.
Prosecutors have asked the Supreme Court to dissolve Memorial International, the group’s central structure, for alleged failure to use a “foreign agent” label as required by a controversial law regulating groups that receive funds from the group. ‘foreigner.
The move sparked widespread outrage, with supporters claiming that Memorial’s closure would mark the end of an era of post-Soviet democratization of Russia.
It comes in a year that has seen an unprecedented crackdown on opponents of President Vladimir Putin, including the imprisonment of chief Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and the ban on his organizations.
“Insult to millions”
During the hearing, which lasted several hours before being adjourned to December 14, prosecutors accused Memorial of failing to “systematically” use the foreign agent label and to attempt to hide his status.
Memorial’s lawyers and founders denied this, saying its material was properly marked and only an insignificant number of documents may not have the label.
“We are talking about the liquidation of an organization that helps people … an organization that preserves our common memory,” one of its co-founders, Yelena Zhemkova, told the court.
“You cannot shut down such an organization on technicalities.”
Outside the court, more than 200 people gathered on a cold Moscow day to support the group.
Maria Krechetova, a 48-year-old philosophy professor, said closing Memorial would be an “insult to the millions” of those who suffered under the repressive Soviet regime.
“Banning the Memorial would deal a final blow to the idea that a person means something (in Russia) and that their rights mean something,” she said.
“The memorial plays a huge role in our country. This organization studies above all the history, the repressions,” said Arina Vakhrushkina, 18.
“This is a page in our history that the authorities try to turn and forget, they just want to be proud of our victories.”
More than 100,000 people have signed an online petition calling for the case to be dropped.
Thursday’s hearing concerned one of two cases brought this month against the group and is being heard by the Supreme Court because Memorial International is registered as an international body. The decision will not be subject to appeal in a Russian court.
The other case, against the Memorial Human Rights Center, began Tuesday in a Moscow court and will continue later this month.
He is also accused of violating the “foreign agent” law and faces another defense charge of “extremist and terrorist activities” for publishing lists of jailed members of banned political or religious movements.
Memorial has spent decades cataloging atrocities committed in the Soviet Union, particularly in the notorious network of prison camps, the Gulag.
He also campaigned for the rights of political prisoners, migrants and other marginalized groups, and highlighted the abuses, especially in the turbulent North Caucasus region which includes Chechnya.
It is a loose structure of locally registered organizations, but the dissolution of its central structure could have a major impact on operations.
Memorial International maintains the group’s extensive archives in Moscow and coordinates dozens of Memorial-related NGOs inside and outside Russia.
Memorial International board member Oleg Orlov told AFP the move would “greatly” complicate the NGO’s work by depriving it of a legal basis to pay employees, receive funds or store archives.
Officials from the UN, the Council of Europe, international rights groups and Western governments have all warned of the group’s disbandment.