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Graffiti painted outside Memorial's offices in central Moscow in November 2012 says "Foreign agent. Love USA."

Shortly after it received a notice from Russia's Supreme Court saying prosecutors were seeking its closure, Russia's oldest and perhaps most revered human rights group, Memorial, shared the news in a tweet that summed up the reaction of its staff: "We can't believe it."

And yet, many observers of Russia's increasingly authoritarian turn under President Vladimir Putin were not surprised by this development.

Memorial, which for more than 30 years has painstakingly documented Soviet-era crimes and defended Russians' right to due process even as it faced an increasing hailstorm of court cases and convictions, was already under immense pressure after it was tagged with a "foreign agent" label that forced it to operate under strict rules.

Memorial soon started racking up large fines for alleged violations of its duty to advertise its "foreign agent" status. Its nationwide network of activists --who have worked to shed light on dark pages of the Russian and Soviet past, in particular the Soviet state's crimes under Josef Stalin, and to counter official statements that muddy the waters -- have been fined and even jailed in what critics said was retaliation for their work.

"The state criminalizes the activity of civil organizations. And now it criminalizes the memory of victims of the state," Andrei Kolesnikov, who chairs the Russian domestic politics program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote on Twitter. "Without de-Stalinization, Russia is doomed to backwardness."

The Prosecutor-General's Office appealed to the Supreme Court to order the closure of International Memorial, which acts as an umbrella group for other parts of the movement, including its regional branches and the Memorial Human Rights Center. The court has scheduled a hearing on the request for November 25.

The signs, analysts say, had been there for a while. Events held by Memorial had occasionally been disrupted by unwanted guests, and on October 15 police locked 20 people inside the group's Moscow offices after a film screening was gate-crashed by a state TV film crew and several dozen masked men shouting obscenities.

The NGO was showing Mr. Jones, a movie focused on the Holodomor famine in Ukraine, which historians say was a result of Stalin's policies. The dictator's legacy has been gradually rehabilitated under Putin, observers say, even as Memorial has fought against that rehabilitation and for transparency about Stalin's crimes.

"The case has been in the making for quite [some] time," Jens Siegert, a Russia-based German political analyst, wrote on Twitter in reference to the latest move against Memorial.

Cases against some of Memorial's activists have gone on for even longer. In one of most prominent, in Karelia near Finland, amateur historian Yury Dmitriyev is still seeking to appeal the ruling of a court that sentenced him to 13 years in prison in September 2020 after convicting him of sexually abusing his foster daughter, a charge he contends is a politically motivated fabrication.

As he was being tried, a government body oversaw excavations at a gulag gravesite that Dmitriyev had helped uncover -- and whose significance the state has sought to undermine.

But the move to shut down Memorial, which was founded in the "glasnost" era of the late 1980s and has remained Russia's most prominent human rights organization, also comes at a time when much of Russia's civil society and political opposition is being targeted by a persistent crackdown that is unprecedented in the post-Soviet era.

Much of that crackdown has focused on Russian individuals and organizations declared "foreign agents" by the state, which requires them to declare any foreign funding they receive to submit regular burdensome audits. International Memorial was added to the "foreign agents" registry in October 2016.

In a statement on November 11, it made no bones about what it alleges is the real motivation behind the legal campaign. "The decision to abolish International Memorial is politically motivated," the NGO said. "It aims to destroy the organization, which deals with the political repressions of the past and fights for human rights today."

Memorial Chairman Aleksandr Cherkasov (file photo)
Memorial Chairman Aleksandr Cherkasov (file photo)

In an interview with Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with Voice of America, Aleksandr Cherkasov, chairman of the Memorial Human Rights Center, said the NGO had long been under pressure but had tried to continue working despite the state waging a war of attrition against it.

"People always ask, why precisely now?" he said of this latest attempt to shut down Memorial.

The authorities have tried various tactics to force the group to wind up operations, he said, "and they've now made a decision, and the sledgehammer has come down."

Anton Benediktov of Current Time and the North.Realities desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report
“The liquidation of International Memorial would deal a further devastating blow to civil society, which is an essential pillar of any democracy,” the Council of Europe said.

Russia's move to close down the rights group Memorial has sparked widespread condemnation, even from within the country, amid concerns over the government's widening crackdown on civil society.

The request by the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office asking for the Supreme Court to shut down part of one of the country's most prominent human rights groups was called "regrettable" by the head of the Council of Europe (CoE) on November 12, while German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said he was shocked by the news.

Even the Kremlin's own rights council questioned the wisdom of the move of shutting down a respected organization founded by rights activists including renowned scientist and Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, calling it "unjust."

The office said it made the request because International Memorial, a part of the rights group, had failed to comply with requirements of the controversial law on "foreign agents," legislation that Marija Pejcinovic Buric, the secretary-general of the CoE, a pan-European rights body, said "stigmatizes" NGOs, media, and individuals and "has had a repressive impact on civil society in Russia over recent years."

Memorial is among several investigative news outlets, journalists and rights organizations to have been labelled foreign agents in what is seen as a historic crackdown on independent organizations that oppose the government or uncover corruption by authorities.

The group said on November 12 that it had received the official 11-page claim and 180-page annex filed by the Prosecutor-General's Office.

It said the text included the claim that Memorial's materials contain "signs of justifying extremism and terrorism" including the activities of Islamic groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir, Tablighi Jamaat, and At-Takfir Wal Hijra -- all of which are labeled as terrorist groups and banned in Russia. It also cited the Jehovah's Witnesses and Artpodgotovka (Artillery Bombardment), which are also designated as extremist by Russian authorities.

Memorial says it recognized some of the members of the named groups as political prisoners, noting that Russian authorities have used terrorism and extremism charges to clamp down on dissent for years.

"The liquidation of International Memorial would deal a further devastating blow to civil society, which is an essential pillar of any democracy," Pejcinovic Buric said in the statement.

Russia's so-called "foreign agent" legislation was adopted in 2012 and has been modified repeatedly.

It requires nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign assistance and that the government deems to be engaged in political activity to be registered, to identify themselves as “foreign agents,” and to submit to audits.

International Memorial, which said a hearing on the case will be held on November 25, was added to the "foreign agents" registry in October 2016.

The group -- along with many officials from countries in the West -- says the "foreign agents" legislation was meant to suppress independent organizations and that it saw no legal basis for it to be dismantled.

"We have repeatedly emphasized that the Russian foreign agent legislation is unlawful and consciously designed to suppress civil society. We have insisted that this law must be repealed. Yet, as long as it is in force, we are obliged to fulfill its requirements," the group said in a statement on November 11 when it announced it faced liquidation proceedings.

"The decision to abolish International Memorial is politically motivated. It aims to destroy the organization, which deals with the political repressions of the past and fights for human rights today," the statement added.

"Russian authorities' lawsuits​, aiming to close Memorial International and Human Rights Center Memorial, is their latest attack on freedom of expression," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Twitter. "Russia must end the lawsuits and stop misusing its law on 'foreign agents' to harass, stigmatize, and silence civil society."

"The politically motivated persecution of critical civil society must end," Germany's Maas said.

The Russian Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, which is usually aligned with the policies of the Kremlin, also expressed concerns over the move on November 12, calling it an "extreme measure."

"The proposed sanction is unjust and disproportionate to the cumulative violations, as over the past 14 months the surveillance bodies have not revealed a single violation by International Memorial of its legal obligations, while only two minor violations have been found at the Memorial human rights center," the statement said.

The Memorial human rights center -- another branch of the highly respected Moscow-based organization -- was placed on the government's "foreign agent" register in November 2015.

A movement rather than a centralized structure, Memorial was established in the late 1980s during the "glasnost" and "perestroika" reforms initiated by the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

By 2018, Memorial had more than 60 branches and affiliated organizations scattered across Russia, with a quarter of them established in 2014 or later.

The branches share the same interest in respectiong human rights, documenting the past, and marking Days of Remembrance for the victims of political repression.

The “foreign agents” laws also require those designated to label their content with an intrusive disclaimer, with criminal fines for not doing so.

The label has forced several NGOs, media organizations, and other groups to shut down as they lose revenues from spooked advertisers.

With reporting by TASS, dpa, and Interfax

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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