International Memorial: Russia’s top court orders closure of oldest civil rights group

Russia’s Supreme Court ordered the closure of International Memorial, Russia’s oldest human rights group.

Memorial worked to recover the memory of the millions of innocent people executed, imprisoned or persecuted in the Soviet era.

Formally it has been “liquidated” for failing to mark a number of social media posts with its official status as a “foreign agent”.

That designation was given in 2016 for receiving funding from abroad.

But in court, the prosecutor labelled Memorial a “public threat”, accusing the group of being in the pay of the West to focus attention on Soviet crimes instead of highlighting a “glorious past”.

Founded in 1989, Memorial became a symbol of a country opening up to the world and to itself as Russia began examining the darkest chapters of its past. Its closure is a stark symbol of how the country has turned back in on itself under President Vladimir Putin, rejecting criticism, even of history as a hostile act.

The ruling also shines a light on the rise in repression in modern-day Russia, where Memorial’s own human rights wing now lists more than 400 political prisoners, and independent groups and media are increasingly blacklisted as “foreign agents”.

In court, lawyers for Memorial argued that the group’s work was beneficial for the “health of the nation”. They declared Memorial a friend of Russia, not its enemy, and called the case for liquidation absurd and “Orwellian”.

Among the sites the group failed to mark with its “foreign agent” status was the vast database of victims of political repression that it has assembled over three decades of work.

The team argued that any mistakes had been corrected and that shutting down a prominent and respected organisation over such technical errors was disproportionate.

In a statement later on Tuesday, International Memorial said it would challenge the ruling and find legitimate ways to continue its work.

The ruling has been criticised internationally, with Germany calling the decision “incomprehensible”, arguing that it deprived victims of oppression of their voice.

Meanwhile, US Ambassador to Moscow John Sullivan condemned a “tragic attempt to suppress freedom of expression and erase history” and Amnesty International said it “tramples” on the memory of millions of innocent victims.