The head of the Council of Europe (CoE) says Russia’s moves aimed at closing down the rights group Memorial are “regrettable” and would deal a “devastating blow” to civil society in the country.
Marija Pejcinovic Buric, the secretary-general of the CoE, a pan-European rights body, said in a statement on November 12 that Russia should back off from a request a day earlier by the Prosecutor-General’s Office asking for the Supreme Court to shut down part of one of the country’s most prominent human rights groups.
The office said it made the request because International Memorial, a part of the rights group, had failed to comply with requirements of the controversial law on "foreign agents," legislation that Pejcinovic Buric said “stigmatizes” NGOs, media, and individuals and “has had a repressive impact on civil society in Russia over recent years.”
Memorial is among several investigative news outlets, journalists, and rights organizations to have been labeled "foreign agents" in what is seen as a historic crackdown on independent organizations that oppose the government or uncover corruption by authorities.
“The liquidation of International Memorial would deal a further devastating blow to civil society, which is an essential pillar of any democracy,” Pejcinovic Buric said in the statement.
Russia’s so-called "foreign agent" legislation was adopted in 2012 and has been modified repeatedly.
It requires nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign assistance and that the government deems to be engaged in political activity to be registered, to identify themselves as “foreign agents,” and to submit to audits.
International Memorial, which said a hearing on the case will be held on November 25, was added to the "foreign agents" registry in October 2016.
The group – along with many officials from countries in the West -- says the "foreign agents" legislation was meant to suppress independent organizations and that it saw no legal basis for it to be dismantled.
"We have repeatedly emphasized that the Russian foreign agent legislation is unlawful and consciously designed to suppress civil society. We have insisted that this law must be repealed. Yet, as long as it is in force, we are obliged to fulfill its requirements," the group said in a statement on November 11 when it announced it faced liquidation proceedings.
"The decision to abolish International Memorial is politically motivated. It aims to destroy the organization, which deals with the political repressions of the past and fights for human rights today," the statement added.
The Memorial human rights center -- another branch of the highly respected Moscow-based organization -- was placed on the government's "foreign agent" register in November 2015.
A movement rather than a centralized structure, Memorial was established in the late 1980s during the "glasnost" and "perestroika" reforms initiated by the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.
By 2018, Memorial had more than 60 branches and affiliated organizations scattered across Russia, with a quarter of them established in 2014 or later.
The branches share the same interest in respectiong human rights, documenting the past, and marking Days of Remembrance for the victims of political repression.
The “foreign agents” laws also require those designated to label their content with an intrusive disclaimer, with criminal fines for not doing so.
The label has forced several NGOs, media organizations, and other groups to shut down as they lose revenues from spooked advertisers.