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Russia equates defending political prisoners to ‘justifying terrorism’ in ban on Memorial Human Rights Centre

30.12.2021
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

Scroll down for at least temporarily good news from the European Court of Human Rights. 

A day after Russia’s Supreme Court ordered the closure of the Memorial Society and all its branches, a Moscow court has carried out the same hatchet job against the Memorial Human Rights Centre.  The latter has played a huge role in monitoring Russia’s repression in occupied Crimea, and the excuses given for demanding its closure may well augur a new escalation in political persecution. 

The ruling, issued on 29 December 2021 by judge Mikhail Yurievich Kazakov from the Moscow City Court is very brief and simply states that the court is allowing the application from the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office and dissolving the Memorial Human Rights Centre (Memorial HRC) and all its structural bodies.  The ruling can, and will, be appealed in the First Court of Appeal.

Although the original announcements on 11-12 November cited alleged violations of Russia’s notorious law on so-called ‘foreign agents’, this was generally understood as a mere pretext, with the infringements actually very minor.  The current Russian regime began waging an offensive against the Memorial Society and Memorial HRC (which is linked, but a separate legal entity) long before the ‘foreign agent’ law was used as excuse.

In November 2015, Russia’s Justice Ministry accused Memorial HRC of ““undermining the foundations of the constitutional order” by forming negative public opinion “regarding the state policy undertaken by the highest bodies of State power; by expressing disagreement with the decisions and actions of the said Institutes of power, with the results of criminal investigations and court verdicts on high-profile criminal cases”.  One of the examples cited was Memorial HRC’s statement that Russia’s actions against Ukraine fall under the definition of aggression, and that in its view “there was direct engagement by Russian soldiers in fighting on the territory of another country. – against the legitimate authorities of a neighbouring country” (more details here).

From 2019, exorbitant fines began being imposed against both the Memorial Society and Memorial HRC for supposed infringements of the law on ‘foreign agents’, with the aim very clearly to force the human rights NGOs to dissolve themselves.

The NGOs survived then, so more direct measures have now been applied.  Nobody seriously believes that the ‘judges’ involved in the horrific sentence against historian of the Terror  and head of Karelia’s Yury Dmitriev on 27 December; the Supreme Court ruling to dissolve the Memorial Society on 28 December and the 29 December ruling against Memorial HRC did anything more than rubberstamp rulings handed down from above.  That does not, of course, absolve them of responsibility, nor does it the prosecutors and so-called ‘experts’ also complicit in the deed.

The attack against Memorial HRC is particularly dangerous because of the extra excuses used.  In its application to the Moscow City Court, the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office claimed that the NGO’s materials contain “elements of the justification of extremism and terrorism”.  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 were citied.  As of December 2021, over 80 Crimean Tatar and other Ukrainian Muslims are either serving or facing massive sentences without any crime, merely for unproven ‘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 claimed that the material regarding such persecution contain “the linguistic and psychological elements of the activities of members” of what Russia calls ‘terrorist or ‘extremist’ organizations.  It was asserted 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”.

This nonsense was produced by two individuals without any expert knowledge and with either no academic publications at all, or just three, and none in the relevant field.  There were also very serious questions as to why their ‘opinion’ had been sought back in December 2020, and how it had been presented within a day or two of being commissioned. Natalia Nikolaevna Kryukova is a maths teacher and co-founder of the Centre for Socio-Cultural Expert Assessments ["Центр социокультурных экспертиз"]  for which Alexander Yevgenyevich Tarasov, a philologist and translator, also provides unqualified ‘opinions’.  The Centre has earned its very shady reputation through politically motivated ‘assessments’ written to fit the prosecution’s charges in the persecution Yury Dmitriev; the Jehovah’s Witnesses and, earlier, the Pussy Riot punk group.  The civic watchdog Dissernet has provided details about five dodgy assessments given by each of these two individuals, but the number is, in fact, much higher.   

Despite ample evidence provided by the defence of these alleged ‘experts’ shady credentials, plagiarism, etc.,  judge Kazakov refused to summon them for questioning.

The Memorial Human Rights Centre has been one of the main sources of information and voices in defence of political prisoners in Russia and occupied Crimea.  Its closures is already a tragic blow for those in occupied Crimea facing mounting repression.  It is a double blow, however, since the claim that the NGO’s recognition of law-abiding Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses or others as political prisoners ‘justifies’ ‘terrorism’ or ‘extremism’ could soon be used as a weapon to silence others who speak out in defence of victims of persecution.

UPDATE 

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. 

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