Prominent Russian and international rights defenders have urged Moscow to halt a legal campaign to close Memorial, the country’s leading civil society group, which is the latest target in a major Kremlin crackdown on activists and government critics.
Branches of Memorial emerged around the Soviet Union during a period of liberal reform in the late 1980s, and then united under an umbrella organisation that commemorated the millions of victims of Soviet repression and the Gulag prison camps.
In recent years it has also offered support to targets of politically motivated prosecutions and abuses by Russia’s security services, which have regained huge power during the 21-year rule of president Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer.
Russia branded Memorial a “foreign agent” several years ago for receiving funding from abroad, under a law that has now expanded to include many media outlets and activists that have investigated or criticised Mr Putin and his allies.
Days after saying this month that Russian jails now hold at least 420 political prisoners, Memorial was accused of flouting the strictures of its “foreign agent” status and of “justifying terrorism and extremism”, by defending the rights of people prosecuted under those terms, which are applied very broadly in Russia today.
“I am acutely aware of the years of abuse you have endured for your efforts to truthfully remember the past, and to pay tribute to the memory of those who suffered for speaking up about and exposing human rights violations in the present,” said Mary Lawlor, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.
“You are doing so in the service of Russia and your fellow citizens, and for this you are slandered as foreign agents and glorifiers of terrorism,” the founder of Dublin-based Front Line Defenders and former director of Amnesty International’s branch in Ireland told a Moscow press conference by video link on Thursday.
Fight for freedom
After expressing “solidarity with, respect for and admiration of colleagues” in Memorial, Ms Lawlor said she hoped the Russian authorities “do not go as far as the dissolution [of Memorial] as this would show flagrant disregard for UN values”.
Dunja Mijatovic, human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe, said Memorial had “fought for freedom, dignity and for the truth for victims of Soviet-era repressions and continues to address today’s most challenging human rights issues”.
Closure of the group “would have significant negative consequences ... for civic society as a whole [in Russia] and human rights protection in the country”, she added.
The Kremlin says Russia will not listen to foreign criticism of what it calls domestic legal matters.
“Memorial is not [just] an organisation. It is about values and people who shares these values,” said Tatiana Glushkova, a council member of the group’s human rights centre. “Memorial ... will continue to exist for as long as these people exist.”