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As Russia’s courts muzzle Memorial human rights group, activists stress that ‘the truth is on our side’

Memorial Human Rights Center ordered to close in second blow to group in two days amid Kremlin’s crackdown on dissent

Supporters of the Memorial human rights group wear masks reading, “The Memorial cannot be banned,” in front of a Moscow court on Dec. 29. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

MOSCOW — A Moscow court abolished the Memorial Human Rights Center on Wednesday in the second ruling in two days against Russia’s most prominent human rights group. Russia’s Supreme Court liquidated another wing of the group, the International Memorial Society, on Tuesday in a decision condemned by global human rights organizations.

The forced closure of both wings of Memorial, Russia’s oldest rights organization, was a sharp blow to rights activists amid the Kremlin’s sweeping crackdown on dissent.

Memorial was formed by dissidents in the final years of the Soviet Union to investigate Soviet-era repression of political prisoners and to expose contemporary rights abuses.

Authorities designated Memorial Human Rights Center a foreign agent in 2014 and the International Memorial Society in 2016. The designation carries onerous requirements on reporting of finances and tagging all written materials including social media posts with a lengthy foreign agent label, and the law is used by authorities to target rights groups, independent journalists and activists.

Human rights advocates said the moves against Memorial sent a warning that activists can be prosecuted for criticizing Russian authorities, supporting the victims of human rights abuses or even exposing Soviet repression that occurred decades ago.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price on Tuesday condemned the closure of the International Memorial Society and called on Russian authorities to stop harassing human rights defenders.

“The closure of Memorial follows a year of rapidly shrinking space for independent civil society, media and pro-democracy activists in Russia,” he said.

Part of the prosecution’s case against Memorial Human Rights Center was based on the fact that its annual list of political prisoners included some inmates designated by authorities as extremists or terrorists. Prosecutors said this meant the center justified terrorism and extremism.

Last month, the center published a list of 420 political prisoners in Russia but said the true number was probably higher. The list contains a disclaimer that the organization does not endorse the views of individual political prisoners, which include leading opposition figure Alexei Navalny and his associates, as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses, bloggers, anarchists and critics of Russian authorities.

He spent years uncovering the Stalin-era execution of his great-grandfather. Lawsuits seek to bury the evidence.

The prosecution also told Judge Mikhail Kazakov at Wednesday’s hearing that Memorial had repeatedly disregarded the law and “grossly violated” the rights of Russian citizens. The prosecution said the Memorial Human Rights Center was partly funded by foreign states and had promoted protests aimed at destabilizing the country. Prosecutors also argued that the center’s list of political prisoners undermined Russians’ confidence in the justice system.

The Memorial Human Rights Center said the case against it was political and lacked any legal basis.

“We know the truth is on our side,” the center tweeted shortly before Wednesday’s hearing. “Memorial is a huge number of people. No liquidation can take this away.” Memorial advocate Mikhail Biryukov said the organization would appeal Wednesday’s ruling.

Another member of the group’s legal team, Grigory Vaipan, said the Memorial Human Rights Center could continue to function until a higher court hears the appeal, when its future would be decided. Vaipan told the court Tuesday that the charges against Memorial Human Rights Center were similar to those leveled against dissidents in Soviet times. Liquidating the center for fighting against political repression would itself be a political repression, he said.

The center’s chairman, Alexander Cherkasov, told the court that Memorial fought against repression, which was a bad way to govern. He said the prosecution’s effort to abolish the center was equivalent to the Russian state smashing a red, flashing warning light.

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Cherkasov told a news conference last month that the case against the center was “just the government’s arbitrary will, exercised for the last 10 years through the so-called foreign agents law. It is the will to subdue everything which is not under its control, to bring NGOs under the government’s control, and to eliminate them if they resist.”

Last month, 55 member organizations of the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights called on Russian authorities to end the “coordinated judicial attack” against both wings of Memorial and to drop the charges.

Condemnation of the earlier decision to liquidate the International Memorial Society poured in from rights advocates around the world Tuesday: Rachel Denber, deputy director the Europe and Central Asian division of Human Rights Watch, said the ruling heralded “a new era of repression,” while European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell deplored the decision, saying “critical looks on their past are essential for the healthy development and progress of societies.”

Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, called the decision “heart-breaking.”

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