MOSCOW: Russia’s Supreme Court ordered on Tuesday the closure of Memorial, the country’s most prominent rights group that chronicled Stalin-era purges and symbolised post-Soviet democratisation, sparking an international outcry.
The court ruling against Memorial International, the group’s central structure, caps a year that began with the jailing of President Vladimir Putin’s top critic Alexei Navalny and saw a historic crackdown on rights groups and independent media.
But the ban against Memorial stands out even in the current climate and would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.
Judge Alla Nazarova ordered the closure of Memorial International and its regional branches after prosecutors accused the organisation of failing to mark its publications with a label of “foreign agent”, the tag for groups that receive funds from overseas.
“Disgrace! Disgrace!” supporters shouted in court after the ruling.
Prosecutors also accused Memorial International of denigrating the memory of the Soviet Union and its victories and rehabilitating “Nazi criminals”.
During Tuesday’s hearing a prosecutor said Memorial “creates a false image of the USSR as a terrorist state and denigrates the memory of World War II”.
The court decision is the hardest blow yet to the organisation founded in 1989 by Soviet dissidents including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov.
The ruling came after Putin accused the group of advocating for “terrorist and extremist organisations”.
In a statement on Tuesday evening, Memorial International said it would appeal and find “legal ways” to continue its work.
“Memorial is not an organisation, it is not even a social movement,” the statement said. “Memorial is the need of the citizens of Russia to know the truth about its tragic past, about the fate of many millions of people.”
The court ruling sparked an international backlash, with US ambassador John Sullivan calling it “a blatant and tragic attempt to suppress freedom of expression and erase history.” “The dissolution of Memorial International is a terrible loss for the Russian people,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said, adding the decision was “deeply worrying for the future of historical research and the defence of human rights in Russia.” Marija Pejcinovic Buric, secretary general of the Council of Europe, said Russia appeared to be moving “further away from our common European standards and values.” “The liquidation of International Memorial is devastating news for civil society in the Russian Federation,” she said.
Dozens of supporters gathered outside the courthouse in freezing temperatures and several people were detained.
Memorial is a loose structure of locally registered organisations, with Memorial International maintaining the network’s extensive archives in Moscow and coordinating its work. The group has spent years cataloguing atrocities committed in the Soviet Union, especially in the notorious network of prison camps, the Gulag. Supporters say its closure signals the end of an era in Russia’s post-Soviet democratisation process, which began 30 years ago this month.
Author Leonid Bakhnov, whose grandfather was executed at the peak of Stalin-era purges in 1937, said the group’s closure was “a tragedy for Russia”. “What a wonderful New Year they arranged for us,” he said bitterly.