Russia’s Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the shutdown of Memorial, the country’s largest rights group, which chronicled the Stalinist-era purges and symbolized post-Soviet democratization.
Judge Alla Nazarova ordered the closure of Memorial International, the organization’s central structure, for violating its designation as a “foreign agent” by failing to mark all of its publications with the legally required label.
The legislation on “foreign agents”, which carries connotations from the Stalinist era, qualifies organizations receiving foreign funds to act against Russian interests.
Prosecutors also accused Memorial International of denigrating the memory of the Soviet Union and its victories and of rehabilitating “Nazi criminals”.
During Tuesday’s hearing, a prosecutor said that Memorial “creates a false image of the USSR as a terrorist state and denigrates the memory of World War II”.
“It has been decided to close Memorial International and its regional branches,” the group said on Telegram.
The court’s decision, which will not be subject to appeal to a Russian court, is the hardest blow to date for the organization founded in 1989 by Soviet dissidents including Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov.
The organization is a loose structure of locally registered organizations, with Memorial International maintaining the network’s extensive archives in Moscow and coordinating its work.
The group has spent years cataloging atrocities committed in the Soviet Union, particularly in the notorious network of prison camps, the Gulag.
The ruling against Memorial crowns a crackdown that has seen authorities jail President Vladimir Putin’s top critic Alexei Navalny, ban his organizations, and crack down on independent media and rights groups.
But Memorial International’s ban stands out even in today’s climate. Supporters say its closure marks the end of an era in Russia’s post-Soviet democratization process, which began 30 years ago this month.
On Tuesday, dozens of supporters gathered outside the courthouse in freezing temperatures and several people were arrested.
Supporter Maria Biryukova said Russia needs the Memorial to make sure the country does not repeat the mistakes of the past.
“We need to know our history, to understand what is happening. Memorial is telling the truth, it does not denigrate the country in any way,” she told AFP.
>> Revisited: In Russia, the battle for memory of Soviet repressions
Memorial’s attorneys and founders have denied any serious breaches, saying its material was properly marked and only an insignificant number of documents could be missing the tag.
Tuesday’s hearing was one of two cases against the group. Prosecutors also demanded that a court shut down the Memorial Human Rights Center, accusing it of tolerating “terrorism and extremism” in addition to violations of the “foreign agent” law.
A Moscow court will hold a new hearing in the case on Wednesday.
Denounced by PutinMemorial 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.
The group has been in the crosshairs of the authorities for years.
On Monday, a court in the northwestern city of Petrozavodsk increased the prison sentence of the director of Memorial in Karelia, Yury Dmitriyev, to a total of 15 years.
His supporters say he is being punished for his work in locating mass graves of people killed under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
Sentenced last year to 13 years in prison for what his supporters say are false accusations of pedophilia, the 65-year-old will now spend two more years in prison.
Putin said Memorial had defended “terrorist and extremist organizations”.
The lawsuits come after Russia this weekend blocked the website of rights monitor OVD-Info, which works with Memorial, saying it encouraged terrorism and extremism.
OVD-Info has been following opposition protests and providing legal support to victims of political persecution, while Memorial has compiled a list of political prisoners that includes Navalny.
On Tuesday, Navalny’s team said authorities arrested the heads of its now dismantled offices in the Siberian regions of Irkutsk and Tomsk, Zakhar Sarapulov and Ksenia Fadeyeva, who is also a local MP.
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