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Russian Scholars, Activists Call On Authorities To Reconsider Move Against Memorial

An activist in the Russian city of Astrakhan takes part in a protest against the closure of Memorial on November 14.
An activist in the Russian city of Astrakhan takes part in a protest against the closure of Memorial on November 14.

A group of leading Russian scholars has called on the authorities to reconsider a move aimed at shutting down one of Russia's most respected human rights groups -- Memorial.

More than 60 Russian scholars, including members of the Academy of Sciences and the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Center, said the announcement last week by Memorial that it had been notified by Russia's Supreme Court that prosecutors had filed a demand to dissolve the group over systematic violations of "foreign agent" legislation "is an attempt to deprive the nation of its memory."

The attack on Memorial comes amid an unprecedented crackdown on the opposition and independent media in Russia, with authorities imprisoning Russia's top opposition politician Aleksei Navalny earlier this year, and the detention of thousands of protesters who have since come out to support the Kremlin's most vocal critic.

" our strong protest against the persecution and attempts to close the Memorial Society undertaken by the authorities under a far-fetched pretext," a November 15 statement signed by scholars of the July 1 Club said.

"The destruction of Memorial is an attempt to deprive the nation of its memory, which we cannot allow if we want to avoid a repetition of an era of monstrous repressions," it added.

Reports emerged on November 11 that Moscow prosecutors asked a city court to order the Memorial Human Rights Center's closure, while Russian federal prosecutors want the Supreme Court to order a shutdown of International Memorial. Hearings in both cases are scheduled for late November.

The Memorial organization was launched shortly before the Soviet collapse in part to document Soviet repression.

In the decades since, it has produced hallmark indicators of the rights situation in Russia and elsewhere through lists of political prisoners, and documenting historical and ongoing injustices.

Memorial has maintained that Russia's "foreign agents" legislation from 2012 and its subsequent amendments are meant to suppress independent organizations and it sees no legal basis for the rights group to be dismantled.

The legislation 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.

The Boris Yeltsin Presidential Center noted in a November 15 statement that the former president was once a member of Memorial, adding that concern for the fate of the group was "understandable."

"In these difficult days for Memorial, we would like to express the hope that the trial will be able to be objective and that Memorial will continue its selfless work to expose Stalin's crimes," it said, reflecting on the outcry -- both locally and internationally -- to the move.

Nearly 23,000 men and women have signed an online petition called "Hands Off Memorial!" in the four days since the public announcement of the move against the rights group.

Over the weekend, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the possible closure of Memorial and demanded Russian authorities stop using the controversial law on "foreign agents" to persecute and intimidate the organization.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on November 15 did not comment directly on the prosecutors' move, but stressed that Memorial "has been having problems for a long time in terms of following Russian laws."

The Memorial Human Rights Center was put on the "foreign agents" list in 2014.

International Memorial, a stand-alone group and the umbrella group for the 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.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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