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Russia claims that by naming its political prisoners, Memorial is ‘justifying terrorism’

17.11.2021
Halya Coynash
Memorial Human Rights Centre, Lawyer facing armed and masked officers during the operation against 24 Crimean Tatar civic activists and journalists Photo Crimean Solidarity

In its latest attempt to crush the Memorial Human Rights Centre, Russia has used a new and very dangerous weapon, with major implications for occupied Crimea.  In its application to the Moscow City Court to have Memorial HRC dissolved, the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office claimed that the NGO’s materials contain “elements of the justification of extremism and terrorism”.  The material in question would appear to be Memorial’s list of political prisoners and its reports on individual cases, where Russians, Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainians are imprisoned as Jehovah’s Witnesses or for alleged involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir.  While at present Russia is using this weapon very selectively, it could become a widespread form of terror against all of those who speak out against mounting religious persecution.

The application names three organizations which Russia has designated ‘terrorist’ -  Hizb ut-Tahrir; Tablighi Jamaat and Takfir wal-Hijra, as well as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the left-wing organization Artpodgotovka which have both been labelled ‘extremist’.  As of November 2021, around 80 Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainian Muslims are either serving huge sentences or are imprisoned and facing sentences for supposed involvement in the peaceful Hizb ut-Tahrir transnational Muslim party which is legal in Ukraine.  Four Ukrainian Jehovah’s Witnesses are serving 6 or 6.5 year sentences with at least 12 others facing such sentences.  The Memorial Human Rights Centre has, since Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, played a crucial role in documenting all such cases and declaring those deprived of their liberty political prisoners.

The Moscow Prosecutor’s Office has now claimed that the relevant material regarding such persecution contain “the linguistic and psychological elements of the activities of members” of these so-called terrorist or extremist organizations.  These “elements’ are alleged to be in the list of political prisoners which Memorial HRC has been compiling and publishing since 2008, as well as in the individual case notes.

It is claimed that “the activities of these organizations are presented by the authors as legitimate and acceptable, and participation in their activities as one of the forms of exercising the right to freedom of faith…. The given material is aimed at forming in an undefined circle of people the impression that it is acceptable to carry out terrorist and extremist activities, namely the activities of international extremist and terrorist organizations and participation in them”.

The above nonsense is the work of a so-called ‘psycholinguistic study by the ‘Centre for Socio-cultural expert assessments’ [Центр социокультурных экспертиз].  This highly dubious outfit was responsible for the ‘assessments’ used in the political persecution of Russian historian of the Terror Yury Dmitriev; Pussy Riot and as justification for the Supreme Court ruling in 2017 claiming the Jehovah’s Witnesses to be ‘an extremist organization’.

Memorial HRC points out that it states in each and every case where it declares a person to be a political prisoner that such recognition does not indicate support for the person’s views.  It also notes how selective and unpredictable Russia’s application of the notorious ‘Law on Foreign Agents’ has been since it first came into force in 2012. 

Russia has long wanted to eliminate both the Memorial Human Rights Centre and the International Memorial Society, and the claim about justifying terrorism and extremism is only one of the pretexts. It is, however, a particularly cynical weapon and one with potential for significantly increasing the level of political persecution in both Russia and occupied Crimea.  Olga Smirnova, a Russian civic activist is currently facing criminal charges for supposedly ‘justifying terrorism’ by holding a picket in defence of four Crimean Tatars from Alushta whom Memorial HRC – and the international community – recognize as political prisoners.

See: Russian activist faces ‘terrorism’ charges for defending Crimean Tatar political prisoners

Russia is trying to crush the main NGO which monitors its repression at home and in occupied Crimea, with the threat of criminal prosecution clearly aimed also at deterring others from speaking out against repression.  In occupied Crimea, this would be an obvious weapon against Crimean Solidarity, the civic initiative which arose because of the arrests of Crimean Tatar civic activists and journalists, as well as other Ukrainian Muslims, on Hizb ut-Tahrir  charges.  Crimean Solidarity is also a vital source of information about other persecution, including of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and it is no accident that so many of its activists and journalists have gone from attending political trials to being the targets of such trials and horrific sentences.  Essentially any Jehovah’s Witness could also face imprisonment for ‘justifying extremism’ by showing support for prisoners of conscience.

In its most recently updated list of political prisoners published on 27 October 2021, Memorial HRC reported that the number had risen from 362 a year earlier to 420.  The real figure, the NGO notes, is likely to be significantly higher.  Memorial does not separately list political prisoners from occupied Crimea or Ukrainian political prisoners altogether, however their real number makes it clear just how much lower the above figure is likely to be.  There are a large number of Crimean Tatars or other Ukrainians whose arrests are too recent to have been added to the list, but who are facing identical charges to those already recognized as political prisoners.  In a number of cases, Russia has managed to keep the charges secret and has held the person incommunicado and without access to a lawyer.  In such cases, Memorial HRC may be aware that the prisoner almost certainly ‘admitted guilt’ under torture or other forms of pressure, but knows too little about the case to declare the person a political prisoner.  This is true, for example, of many Ukrainian political prisoners, such as Mykola Shyptur; Valentin Vyhivsky; Viktor Shur; Halyna Dovhopola and others.   Of the 420 people in the updated lists, 340 are deprived of their liberty for exercising their right to freedom of faith or religious affiliation.  Although one of the reasons why Russia’s persecution of Crimean Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others has been condemned by the UN General Assembly, other bodies and countries (as well as by Memorial HRC) is that, as occupying state, it is prohibited by international law (for example, the Fourth Geneva Convention) from applying its legislation on occupied Crimea, there are other grounds, especially for its persecution of Crimean Tatar activists and journalists on spurious ‘terrorism’ charges and Jehovah’s Witnesses for supposed ‘extremism’. 

If Russia is allowed to crush a vital organization monitoring its repression, this will be a terrifying green light for still further arrests and appalling sentences for faith and civic activism.

The hearing at the Moscow City Court is scheduled for 23 November, and maximum publicity and protest from the international community are vital.

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