Saturday, November 27

Protest in Russian court as future of human rights group Memorial hangs in the balance | Russia

A Russian court has begun hearing arguments about the liquidation of International Memorial, a human rights group founded to investigate and inform the public about state-sponsored crimes and repression under the Soviet Union.

Prosecutors have said the organization should be shut down for violating Russia’s controversial “foreign agents” law, which the government has increasingly used to punish and shut down organizations it considers hostile.

A judge ordered a recess until mid-December, leaving the fate of the human rights group uncertain, but raising the possibility of a pardon. The group has said it believes the judge’s decision will be political.

Members of Russian civil society and Western governments have expressed strong support for Memorial, one of Russia’s oldest human rights groups. Diplomats from more than 20 countries, including the US and the UK, attended the hearing.

On Thursday, the presidents of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia expressed concern about “historical revisionism in Russia and specifically about the possible closure of the Memorial.”

The organization was “ready to tell the whole truth about an uncomfortable history and human rights violations committed by totalitarian regimes,” the statement said.

A crowd of more than 100 human rights activists, students and academics, politicians and others milled in the streets in front of Russia’s supreme court in central Moscow, waiting for news about the fate of the organization.

Police made at least three arrests for picketing while protesters held up posters in support of the organization, which was co-founded by Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov in the late 1980s.

Police and crowds off the court.
More than 100 human rights activists, students and academics, politicians and others were milling in the streets in front of the court. Photograph: Artyom Geodakyan / TASS

“It is impossible to assassinate the memory of a people,” said one of the posters. “We are surviving in poverty, powerlessness and almost without hope.” The piquetera, an elderly woman, was quickly arrested and taken away by the police.

Some believed the decision to dissolve the organization was inevitable, citing a political shift in Russia that stopped examining the crimes of previous governments in favor of celebrating Soviet achievements.

“He’s incredibly ruthless, cowardly,” said Vadim Ivaschenko, an engineer who was off the pitch. “This is our story. I have great respect for what Memorial does. [Closing] it would be like closing a door on an entire era of our past. “

Inside the courtroom on Thursday, prosecutors argued that the organization had “systematically violated” its requirements under the “foreign agents” law by failing to place warning text on all of its posts.

A lengthy exchange between prosecutors and Acting Director Yelena Zhemkova focused on whether and when her business cards identified the organization as a foreign agent.

The judge also rejected a series of defense appeals, including the call of witnesses who could testify about working with the organization.

Zhemkova argued that it would be wrong to shut down an organization that helps people and “helps preserve shared memory” on a “technicality.”

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