Russia’s Supreme Court will consider Thursday a request to close the memorial, a pillar of the country’s most prominent rights group and its civil society.
Founded in 1989 by Soviet dissidents, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov, the Memorial has housed a vast collection of Soviet-era crimes and tirelessly campaigned for human rights in Russia.
Prosecutors have asked the court to dissolve Memorial International, the group’s central structure, for allegedly violating Russia’s controversial law on “foreign agents”.
The move has sparked widespread outrage, with supporters saying the closure of the monument would mark the end of an era in Russia’s post-Soviet democratization.
It comes in a year that has seen an unprecedented crackdown on opponents of President Vladimir Putin, including jailing prominent Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and banning his outfits.
By taking the once unthinkable move to close the monument, the group’s founders say Russian officials may be sending a signal to both the West and domestic opponents.
Message, Memorial’s founding member Irina Shcherbakova told AFP before the hearing: “We’re here doing whatever we want for civil society. We’ll put whoever we want behind bars, we’ll shut down whoever we want.” Will do it.”
Thursday’s hearing is one of two cases brought against the group this month and being heard by the Supreme Court as Memorial International is registered as an international body. The decision will not be open to appeal in a Russian court.
The second case, against the Memorial Human Rights Center, began in a Moscow court on Tuesday and will continue until the end of this month.
Both Memorial International and the Human Rights Center are accused of violating regulations under their designation as “foreign agents”, a legal label that allows individuals or organizations to disclose sources of funding and all their publications with a disclaimer. Forces you to tag.
Listing Soviet atrocities
The Human Rights Center is facing another charge of defending “extremist and terrorist activities” for publishing a list of imprisoned members of banned political or religious movements.
The label “foreign agent”, laden with Soviet-era connotations of treachery and espionage, has been used in recent years against a wide range of rights groups and independent media.
The Memorial has spent decades cataloging the atrocities committed in the Soviet Union, particularly in the Gulag, a notorious network of prison camps.
It has also campaigned for the rights of political prisoners, migrants and other marginalized groups, and has particularly exposed abuses in the troubled North Caucasus region that includes Chechnya.
It is a loose structure of locally registered organizations, but the dissolution of its central structure can have a major impact on operations.
Memorial International maintains the group’s extensive archives in Moscow and coordinates dozens of Memorial-affiliated NGOs within and outside Russia.
Oleg Orlov, a board member of Memorial International, told AFP the move would deny the NGO’s work a legal basis to pay employees, receive funds or store collections.
Officials from the United Nations, the Council of Europe, international rights groups and Western governments have warned against disbanding the group.
Russia’s two living Nobel Peace Prize winners – the last Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and nova gazzetta Newspaper editor Dmitry Muratov – urged prosecutors to withdraw their claims.
The two said in a joint statement that the purpose of the monument was not only to preserve the memory of Soviet-era repression, but to “prevent it from happening now and in the future”.
The Kremlin has said the matter is a matter of courts, although Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the memorial “had long had issues of complying with Russian law.”