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A woman holds a sign saying: "You cannot kill the memory of the people! We survive in poverty, powerlessness and [with] almost no hope," outside the Supreme Court in Moscow on November 25.

Russia's Supreme Court has begun hearing federal prosecutors' arguments aimed at shutting down one of the post-Soviet world's most prestigious human rights organizations, International Memorial.

The case was brought under controversial "foreign agent" laws increasingly used to shutter civil-sector and media groups in Russia.

Police detained at least three picketers who appeared separately outside the court in Moscow to express opposition to the closure request.

One held a sign saying, "We are Memorial," while another had scrawled on her sign: "You cannot kill the memory of the people! We survive in poverty, powerlessness and [with] almost no hope."

Both sides presented arguments to the court before proceedings were adjourned until December 14.

About 50 people were reportedly allowed into the Supreme Court building but the judge warned them not to record the proceedings.

Russian Prosecutor-General Igor Krasnov claims that Memorial International has systematically violated the law by failing to appropriately label its materials.

A separate claim by Moscow authorities targets the Memorial Human Rights Center, the local group that is among Russia's oldest rights groups and works under the umbrella of Memorial International.

A Moscow city court on November 23 heard pretrial arguments in that "foreign agent" case but quickly adjourned until November 29. The court said it would give Moscow prosecutors more time to address questions presented by the defense lawyers for Memorial Human Rights Center.

Memorial has called the actions of the Russian authorities "political pressure" and countered that "there are no legal grounds for liquidation."

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

Memorial is among several news outlets and rights organizations to have been labeled "foreign agents" in what is seen as a historic crackdown on civil society and critics of the government.

The Memorial Human Rights Center was put on the list in November 2015.

International Memorial, a standalone group and the umbrella group for Memorial Human Rights Center and more than 70 other organizations, including 10 operating outside Russia, was added to the "foreign agents" registry five years ago.

In the decades since it was founded in the dying years of the Soviet Union, Memorial has produced hallmark indicators of the rights situation and elsewhere through lists of political prisoners, and documenting historical and ongoing injustices.

In a joint statement on November 18, two Russian Nobel Peace laureates -- the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Novaya gazeta newspaper editor in chief Dmitry Muratov -- said attempts to close Memorial had "caused anxiety and concern in the country, which we share."

Marija Pejcinovic Buric, the secretary-general of the Council of Europe, a pan-European rights body, said last week that the "foreign agents" legislation "stigmatizes" NGOs, media, and individuals and "has had a repressive impact on civil society in Russia over recent years."

Sashik Sultanian talks to RFE/RL in Yerevan on August 2.

An Armenia court has opened a controversial trial against a human rights activist from the minority Yazidi community over comments he made in an interview, despite international concerns about his prosecution.

Prosecutors accuse Sashik Sultanian, the head of the Yazidi Center for Human Rights, of "inciting ethnic enmity between Armenians and Yazidis," a mostly Kurdish-speaking religious group.

The probe against Sultanian was launched in October 2020 after he conducted an interview with the website in June that year. He has been restricted from leaving Armenia for six months.

In the interview, Sultanian said that Yazidis faced discrimination, their rights were not protected, and they were unable to develop their culture, language, or practice their religion.

He also claimed Yazidis were underrepresented in local government structures, that Armenians seized Yazidi property, and the community was not allowed to develop economically.

Prosecutors argue that Sultanian's statements don't fall under human rights advocacy and protected speech "since all allegations mentioned in the interview do not correspond to reality."

Sultanian says his comments were not directed against the Armenian people, but rather the government. The interview was deleted on the day of publication at his request.

Several international and national human rights organizations have denounced the proceedings against Sultanian as an assault on freedom of speech that will have a chilling effect on those who stand up for minority rights.

Armenian authorities have obligations to ensure human rights defenders can freely carry out their activities without any restrictions, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic said in a letter to Armenia's top prosecutor last week.

"This is all the more important when such legitimate speech addresses the treatment of minorities and is aimed at protecting and promoting their rights," she said.

In June, Human Rights Watch called on the Armenian authorities to drop the charges against Sultanian, saying his opinions were protected free speech.

UN special rapporteurs on human rights defenders, minority issues, and freedom of expression have also called on Armenian authorities to drop the case.

"It is not incitement to hatred or violence to raise human rights concerns about the treatment of minorities," the UN experts said in August. "We call on Armenia to drop these criminal charges, which appear designed simply to intimidate Mr. Sultanian and others who stand up for minority rights."

There are only an estimated 1.5 million Yazidis in the world, most of whom live in northern Iraq. There are smaller populations in Syria, Turkey, and in the European diaspora. There are about 40,000 Yazidis in Armenia, where they make up the largest minority group.

Sultanian's next hearing is scheduled for January 26.

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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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