Russian court orders the shutdown of a renowned rights group

MOSCOW (AP), -- Russia's Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that one of Russia's most important and oldest human rights organizations must be closed down. This decision sparked public outrage and is just the latest in a series of months-long crackdowns on rights activists and independent media.

Russian court orders the shutdown of a renowned rights group

Last month, the Prosecutor General's office petitioned the Supreme Court for the revocation of Memorial's legal status. Memorial is an international human rights organization that gained prominence through its studies on political repression in Soviet Union. It currently includes more than 50 smaller groups from Russia and around the world.

On Tuesday, the court ruled in favor the prosecution. They charged that Memorial "creates an false image of Soviet Union as a terrorist State, whitewashes, and rehabilitates Nazi Criminals."

The independent Mediazona news outlet tweeted a video showing a large crowd chanting "Disgrace!" as a response to the ruling.

Memorial, also known as International Memorial in Russia, was designated a "foreign agency" in 2016. This label entails additional government scrutiny and can have strong negative connotations that could discredit the targeted organisation. Prosecutors claimed that the group had repeatedly broken regulations that required it to be designated as a foreign agency and attempted to hide the fact.

Memorial and its supporters maintain that the allegations are politically motivated. The leaders of the organization have pledged to continue their work, even if the court closes them down.

Maria Eismont, one the lawyers who represented the group in court said that "Ofcourse, nothing is over with these." We will appeal and Memorial will continue to live with the people -- it's the people who serve this great cause first and foremost. The work will not stop."

Public outrage has been generated by pressure on the group, and many prominent people have spoken out in support of it this month. On Tuesday, several people were arrested for protesting the courthouse.

Memorial's sister organisation, the Memorial Human Rights Center is also up for closing. A court hearing at the Moscow City Court has been scheduled for Wednesday morning.

In recent months, Russian authorities have increased pressure on media outlets, rights groups and individual journalists. They also named dozens of foreign agents. Some were designated "undesirable", which is a Russian label that outlaws certain organizations, and others were accused of being linked to "undesirable". Several were forced to close down or disband their own offices to avoid further prosecution.

On Saturday, authorities blocked the website OVD-Info, a prominent legal aid organization that focuses on political arrests. They also urged social media platforms not to allow it to remain online after a court ruled that its website contained material that "justify the actions of extremist or terrorist groups." However, the group denied the accusations as politically motivated.

OVD-Info strongly condemned the decision to close Memorial.

The group stated in a statement that Memoria is an institution of national memories about the Great Terror and Soviet Repressions.

It stated that to shut down such an institution would be to publicly justify Stalin’s repressions. It stated, "It is a clear message both to society as to the elites: Yes, repressions have been necessary and useful for the Soviet state in its past, and they are needed today.'

Amnesty International agreed with the sentiments of the group. International Memorial was closed because it violated the rights of freedom of expression and association. "The use by the authorities of the "foreign agents" law to disband the organization is a blatant assault on civil society that seeks the blur the national memory state repression," Marie Struthers (Amnesty International's Eastern Europe & Central Asia director) said in a Tuesday statement.

She added that the decision to close down International Memorial was a grave insult for victims of Russian Gulag. It must be reversed immediately.

Five of the five supporters of Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader, were also taken into custody on Tuesday. A Moscow court had earlier this year declared Navalny's organization, the Foundation for Fighting Corruption, and his country-wide network regional offices, extremist. This exposed their staff and supporters to criminal prosecution.

Ksenia Fadeyeva is one of five activists being held and faces charges of creating an extremist group. Fadeyeva was a former leader of Navalny's Siberian regional office in Tomsk and won a seat at the city legislature last year.

Lilia Chanysheva was also a Navalny ally and was taken into custody in November for similar charges. If convicted, she could face up to 10 years imprisonment.

Navalny is currently serving 2 1/2 years for violating his probation terms from a 2014 embezzlement case that was widely viewed as politically motivated. After returning from Germany in January, the politician was taken into custody. He had spent five months recovering from nerve agent poisoning and blamed the Kremlin. Russian officials have rejected these accusations.

Many of his closest aides have been charged with various criminal offenses and are now in Russia.

On Tuesday, another prominent human rights group -- the Civic Assistance Committee that assists refugees and migrants in Russia -- announced that the authorities had ordered it to be removed from a Moscow office it was allowed to occupy for many years without any cost.

Moscow officials gave the group a document annulling the agreement that allowed the use of the space for free and ordered them to leave within one month.

Svetlana Gannushkina, head of Civic Assistance Committee, told Mediazona that she ties it to Russia's overall trend towards destroying civil society.

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