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US assails Russian efforts to close memorial rights group, ‘misuse’ of ‘foreign agents’ law

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken. (State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has accused Russian authorities of attacking freedom of expression by trying to shut down one of Russia’s most venerated human rights groups and demanded that they quit using a controversial law on “foreign agents” to persecute and intimidate society.

Blinken’s remarks, via Twitter, follow reports of a two-track campaign by Russian prosecutors to close down the widely respected Memorial Human Rights Center and International Memorial.

“Russian authorities’ lawsuits​, aiming to close Memorial International and Human Rights Center Memorial, is their latest attack on freedom of expression,” Blinken said. “Russia must end the lawsuits and stop misusing its law on ‘foreign agents’ to harass, stigmatize, and silence civil society.”

Moscow prosecutors have 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 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 it to be dismantled.

They require 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 Memorial Human Rights Center was put on the list in November 2015.

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

The Russian Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, which is usually aligned with the policies of the Kremlin, also expressed concerns over the closure efforts on November 12, calling them an “extreme measure” that was “unjust and disproportionate” to the alleged violations.

Marija Pejcinovic Buric, the secretary-general of the Council of Europe, a pan-European rights body, said this week that the “foreign agents” legislation “stigmatizes” NGOs, media, and individuals and “has had a repressive impact on civil society in Russia over recent years.”

Memorial Human Rights Center expects a hearing on the Moscow prosecutors’ charges on November 23, while International Memorial expects a hearing on federal prosecutors’ effort to close it down on November 25.