Russia Supreme Court orders human rights NGO to close for ‘foreign agent’ law violation
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Russia Supreme Court orders human rights NGO to close for ‘foreign agent’ law violation

The Russian Supreme Court Tuesday ordered the liquidation of Memorial International, one of Russia’s oldest and most well-respected human rights organizations, which was established in the late 1980s to shine a light on crimes committed by the Soviet regime, including the victims of dictator Josef Stalin’s political purges, as well as World War II-era atrocities.

The order to liquidate Memorial International was handed down by Judge Alla Nazarova. The court cited Memorial International’s systematic violations of the law on “foreign agents” as the reason for liquidation.

The controversial “foreign agent” law was first introduced in Russia in 2012, but has since been modified. In its present form, the law requires nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) who receive foreign donations and engage in political activity to formally register and identify themselves as “foreign agents,” a term that in Russian bears Cold War-era connotations of espionage. The law has previously been used by the Russian state to pressure NGOs to disband.

A prosecutor representing the Russia Prosecutor General’s Office argued that Memorial International had failed to label itself as a foreign agent. In a description of the debate from Memorial International, Prosecutor Aleksey Zhafyarov argued that Memorial International created “a false image of the USSR as a terrorist state.” Zhafyarov also described Memorial International as critical of the Russian state.

Legal representatives for Memorial International countered by arguing the government’s case was politically motivated. Representatives also argued that the “foreign agent” law was not a legitimate basis for liquidation. Even if the court found the “foreign agent” law to be a legitimate basis for liquidation, representatives argued that Memorial International complied with the law by marking all documents with the “foreign agent” indicator.

Following the court’s order to liquidate, representative for Memorial International Maria Eismont stated that Memorial International intends to appeal the case. Eismont said, “Memorial will live on with the people — because it’s the people behind it serving this great cause first and foremost. The work will continue.”

The NGO has faced increased pressure in recent years for its work to elucidate tragedies committed between the early Soviet period to post-Soviet warfare in Chechnya. This has occurred against the backdrop of a dramatic surge in the popularity of Stalin. Russian undependent pollster the Levada Center found that as of May 2021, some 56% of Russians categorized Stalin as a “great leader,” a figure that had doubled since 2016 — a trend described by an analyst from the respected think tank Carnegie Moscow Center as: “an entirely natural consequence of the policy advanced and sponsored by the Russian state of historical amnesia and the literal rewriting of history.”