European Court of Human Rights halts Russia’s execution of vital Memorial Society and Memorial Human Rights Centre
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The official excuse for forcibly dissolving Russia’s oldest and most respected human rights NGOs was supposed to be its alleged violations of Russia’s notorious ‘foreign agent’ legislation. In fact, the real reasons were presented, in highly distorted fashion, during the hearings before the Supreme Court and are those being pushed by the Russian state media. Memorial and its branches have ensured that the truth is learned and discussed about the darkest pages of Soviet history, as well as about recent developments, political repression, etc. in Russia, and that is presented by the current regime as “distorting historical memory” and “creating a false image of the USSR”.
The ruling passed by Supreme Court judge Alla Nazarova on 28 December can and will be appealed, and Jan Raczynski, head of the Board of International Memorial has stressed that until that appeal is heard, the NGO’s work can continue. They will also be taking their case to the European Court of Human Rights, if necessary.
This is not the first attack by the current regime, under President Vladimir Putin, but it is by far the most serious. The Supreme Court’s ruling comes a day after the politically motivated sentence against Yury Dmitriev, historian of the Terror and Head of the Karelia branch of Memorial, was increased to 15 years. It was clear from the propaganda around his arrest back in December 2016 that this was an attack, not only on him, but on Memorial. On 29 December, a similar order to dissolve the vital Memorial Human Rights Centre seems likely. The also beleaguered human rights watchdog OVD-Info issued a statement on 28 December calling the ruling “a sentence against all of Russia’s civic society.” The Supreme Court had simply been used for this political decision, the NGO said.
“This is not a decision to dissolve the Memorial society. This is an institute of national memory about the times of the Great Terror and Soviet repression. The closure of such an institute constitutes public justification of Stalin’s repression.”
OVD-Info also stresses that the repression has not ended, and assumes that the Moscow City Court will, on 29 December, order the closure of the Memorial Human Rights Centre. “That is an unambiguous signal to society and to the elite that “yes, repression was necessary and useful to the Soviet state in the past and it is needed now.”
The Memorial Society was created in the late 1980s and played a huge role, especially in the 1990s in restoring historical truth about the crimes of the Soviet Union. For many people, throughout the former Soviet Union, it was thanks to Memorial, and people like Yury Dmitriev, that we learned where relatives had been executed during the Terror.
Under the current regime, there has been a steady move towards rehabilitating Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, towards minimising Soviet crimes, and denying many of them altogether, as well as to mythologising and glorifying the War of 1941-1945. All of this has led to a huge and terrifying increase in the number of Russians who have a positive attitude to Stalin and attempts to rewrite historical facts.
Under such conditions, it was clear that those, like Dmitriev and all of Memorial and its branches and organizations around the Russian Federation would come under attack (details here of earlier attempts to crush the NGO).
The original reports on 11 November referred only to International Memorial, with it becoming clear the following day that the Memorial Human Rights Centre was also under attack. In its statement , International Memorial reported that the Prosecutor General’s Office had applied to the Supreme Court for its dissolution, and was accusing if of systematically infringing the ‘Foreign Agents’ Law, in particular, the requirement to state on literally any material that the organization has been labelled a ‘foreign agent’. The statement stressed that this was simply untrue, and ended by saying that “the decision to abolish International Memorial is politically motivated. It aims to destroy the organization which deals with the political repression of the past and fights for human rights today.”
During the court hearings, Alexei Zhafyarov and other prosecutors did not especially conceal the fact that the real grievances of the regime against Memorial had nothing to do with the ‘foreign agents’ law. They claimed that Memorial “distorts memory about the War”, “rehabilitates Nazis” and “creates a false image of the USSR”. They claimed that Memorial is paid for such supposed ‘distortions’ and suggested that this is why they purportedly resist identifying themselves as ‘foreign agents’.
All of this, it should be stressed, is repeated in the state media, as have been numerous slanderous attacks, attempts to discredit the organization, etc.
Ivan Pavlov, a Russian human rights lawyer, who has himself been the victim of persecution for his work, writes that “Memorial began the human rights defence era in our country and it is today ending it. The regime is demonstrating to us that from now on the in the civic and information realm there must be nothing, no media projects, no educational initiatives or civic moves. What is left is to either reject any activism, however minimally compromising, or fall under the steamroller of repression.” Pavlov stresses that this applies to individuals, as well as organizations. Even expressing interest in the history of your own family can be deemed ‘political activities’.
Times have changed, he adds, thanks to the Internet. Organizations and individuals can continue educational and other projects, without offices, etc. It’s also important he says, to make sure that as many people as possible know about the existence of VPN, which make the blanket censorship of the Soviet regime a thing of the past. We must also, he concludes, look for new ways and formats of continuing our work. “Yes, this is a new, gloomy and hard era, but it too will end.”
On 29 December, the European Court of Human Rights applied Rule No. 39, halting Russia’s implementation of the rulings on 28 and 29 December which order the closure of the Memorial Society and the Memorial Human Rights Centre, pending the Court’s consideration of Application 9988/13 over the law on ‘foreign agents’. This, in theory, should not be only a temporary stay of execution, given the use of this particular law as the pretext for closing Russia’s most vital human rights NGOs. In fact, there would be no guarantee that Russia would comply with a ruling from ECHR regarding the ‘foreign agent’ law, but it would now be in breach of Article 34 of the European Convention were it to flout Rule 39.