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U.S. 'Concerned' By Russian Lawsuit To Close 'Memorial' Rights Group

The sign outside the headquarters of the Memorial rights group in Moscow.
The sign outside the headquarters of the Memorial rights group in Moscow.

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. State Department has told RFE/RL that Washington is concerned about the Russian government’s lawsuit to liquidate Memorial, the country's oldest and best-known human rights organization, in a case to be heard on November 13 by Russia’s Supreme Court.

Russia's Justice Ministry on October 10 appealed to the Supreme Court to close Memorial, which comprises more than 50 bodies nationwide, including its famed human rights center. The reasons for the request were not made public.

But Memorial suggested the ministry is seeking to dismantle the group due to its organizational structure.

A U.S. State Department official, who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, said organizations like Memorial "play a critical role in the development of democratic societies and the promotion of human rights.”

The official said Washington has "long respected the important work that the 'Russian Memorial Society' does to investigate human rights abuses and promote accountability amidst a challenging climate of impunity."

Oleg Orlov, head of the Memorial Human Rights Center, said the legal attack on the umbrella organization -- formally known as the "Russian Memorial Society" -- is a bellwether for further government action against Memorial and its member groups.

Orlov has said that "further pressure can be expected."

Founded in 1989 under the auspices of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov, Memorial has led efforts to uncover communist-era repressions and fight discrimination in modern-day Russia.

Wider Repression Against NGOs

The U.S. Helsinki Commission, a U.S. government agency that monitors human rights abuses worldwide, said on October 16 that Russia’s attempt to liquidate Memorial is "an obvious attempt to silence the voice of its own conscience."

It said the Russian government's lawsuit fits a pattern in which Russia has sought to starve many nongovernmental organizations of the resources necessary to function.

It also said the new charges against Memorial suggest "an escalation" of tactics against civil society by the Kremlin.

The agency's chairman, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, said: "It is very troubling that an organization founded by Andrei Sakharov to address the crimes of the Stalinist era now has become the target of a new wave of repression."

Meanwhile, European Parliament President Martin Schulz said in Brussels on October 16 that he will "once again" contact the Russian embassy and "directly call" on Russian Justice Minister Aleksandr Konovalov "not to touch our partner Memorial."

Schulz told reporters that the legacy of Andrei Sakharov -- "the man for whom we created the Sakharov Prize, is administrated on the premises of Memorial in Moscow and we have supported this NGO for years."

Schulz said the European Parliament considers it "completely unacceptable" for the NGO to come under threat by the Russian government.

Memorial chairman Arseny Roginsky, a former prisoner in the Soviet gulag, has said that if Russia's Supreme Court closes Memorial, it does not mean that the group’s member organizations will be shuttered as well.

Roginsky said: "Some will have to be reregistered, and then we will figure out a way to unite once again."

With reporting by AFP and RBK
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