On Tuesday, the Russian supreme court banned the country’s longest-running human rights watchdog organisation, Memorial International. The NGO, which has been operating in Russia since the 1980s, tracked repressive measures through the Soviet era and contemporary human rights violations.
The court ruled the organisation had broken a law concerning foreign agents, with the Attorney General’s office saying that the NGO had violated the rules by not calling itself a “foreign agent” on information provided by its website and social media.
This was rebuked by Memorial, which said there was no legal basis for the court’s decision.
The NGO had been labelled a “foreign agent” by the Russian justice ministry back in 2016.
Henri Reznik, the NGO’s lawyer, told Interfax news agency: “We are positive that this motion is unlawful. Yet, this is a political decision.”
Another lawyer for Memorial, Tatiana Glushkova, told CNN: “The real reason for Memorial’s closure is that the prosecutor’s office doesn’t like Memorial’s work rehabilitating the victims of Soviet terror.”
In a statement, Memorial International said the NGO was “a highly respected human rights organization that has worked tirelessly to document the atrocities and political repression carried out under the rule of Joseph Stalin and other Soviet leaders.”
They continued: “By closing down the organization, Russian authorities trample on the memory of millions of victims lost to the Gulag.”
It is widely seen as a sign of a wider crackdown on various freedoms in the Russian Federation, with activists shouting, “shame, shame!” in reaction to the verdict on social media.
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The Green MEP, and human rights lawyer, described how after a “successful purge of the political present [by removing opposition leaders and critics], a purge of collective memory is now taking place.”
He concluded: “Anyone following the situation in Russia knows that imperial despotism is on the march.”
The decision prompted an instant backlash on the international stage, not least from Amnesty International, which denounced the move as “a grave insult to victims of the Russian Gulag.”
The move was heavily criticised by a number of EU countries, as well at the United States.
US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said: “We urge Russian authorities to end their harassment of independent voices and human rights defenders and stand in solidarity with those who have been targeted for repression for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.”
This follows the designation of BBC Russian service investigative journalist Andrei Zakharov, who was labelled a “foreign agent” in October and was forced to leave the country after noticing what he called “unprecedented surveillance”.
He did not specify who he believed to be behind the scrutiny, but Mr Zakharov has pursued investigations that looked into controversial topics from Vladimir Putin’s personal life to alleged Russian hackers.
The use of the term “foreign agent”, attached to journalists and media operating in the Russian Federation, has been widely considered an attack on information sources which the Russian political elite consider hostile.