The Memorial Human Rights Center was ordered to close by a Moscow court on Wednesday for not marking all of its publications with a "foreign agent" label. The Kremlin has forced the designation on media outlets and nongovernmental organizations the state claims receive funding from abroad.
A lawyer from Memorial told the AFP news agency before the judge's decision was announced that "it's obvious" Russia will move to shut down the Memorial Human Rights Center.
The head of the Moscow City Court's press service, Dmitry Oveshnikov, told Russian state-run Interfax that diplomats from Germany, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Lithuania, Spain, Sweden and the US were all in court Wednesday to observe the trial.
After the decision was announced, video posted to social media showed a crowd outside the courthouse chanting, "Shame!"
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil baron who was a political prisoner prior to living in exile, tweeted a quote by the daughter of late Memorial board member Natalya Estemirova: "My mother used to always say: 'It can't get any worse than this.' Turns out it can."
A spokeswoman for the UN Human Rights Office told AFP that Memorial's forced closure and the actions of the court "further weaken the country's dwindling human rights community."
British Foreign Minister Liz Truss said she is "deeply concerned" by the forced closing of Memorial, calling it "another chilling blow to freedom of expression in Russia."
Ruling comes day after Memorial International banned
Wednesday's hearing comes a day after the Supreme Court ruled against the main organization, Memorial International, which documents Soviet-era purges. Memorial, Russia's most prominent human rights group, was banned on similar charges of failing to abide by the "foreign agent" laws and failing to label materials and publications, including social media posts, as made by a registered foreign agent.
The ruling sparked an international outcry with the United States, Germany, France and the European Union all voicing objections to the group's forced closure.
What does the Memorial Human Rights Center do?
In contrast to the historical investigations of Memorial International, Memorial Human Rights Center campaigns on behalf of political prisoners, migrants and other minorities, and focuses on rights abuses in the North Caucasus, including in Chechnya.
The group also maintains an active list of political prisoners in the country, which includes the names of Alexei Navalny, Putin's strongest domestic opponent, and several Jehovah's Witnesses imprisoned in the country.
Kenneth Roth, the director of Human Rights Watch, said the move to close Memorial "speaks to the fears of the Russian government that it is no longer willing to tolerate the honest and objective accounting of its conduct that Memorial provides."
Roth added, "If that mirror is too awful to look at, the answer is to change the conduct, not to shatter the mirror."
What is Memorial?
Memorial is Russia's oldest and most prominent human rights organization, established to investigate the millions murdered under the direction of Russian dictator Josef Stalin and campaign for the rights of political prisoners and the politically oppressed. It was founded in the late 1980s by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov and other Soviet-era dissidents.
In addition to formal charges lobbed against the group, prosecutors told the Russian Supreme Court that Memorial "creates a false image of the USSR as a terrorist state and denigrates the memory of World War II."
The same prosecutor said Memorial's list of victims of Stalinist repressions includes "Nazi offenders with the blood of Soviet citizens on their hands."
For decades, the Soviet Union deflected blame for its own massacres onto Nazi Germany, such as the prominent case of the thousands of Poles who were massacred in the woods in Katyn in 1940.
Henry Reznik, a lawyer for Memorial, described the prosecutors' charges as "reminiscent of the 1930s," when purges were actively carried out under Stalin's direction.
In the past, Memorial had been fined by Russian courts many times. The group has said all charges faced by Memorial are politically motivated.
Remaking Russia's past in the present
Putin and his allies running Russia's military, police, and the security services have done much to revive the cult of Stalin in modern Russia. Great emphasis has been placed on the mythology of Russia's victory in World War II, known in Russia as "the Great Patriotic War."
On Tuesday evening, Memorial International released a statement following the court's ruling against it which said in part, "Memorial is the need of the citizens of Russia to know the truth about its tragic past, about the fate of many millions of people."
Jan Raczynski, a leader within Memorial, said Memorial planned to fight the ruling and would take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.
"You don't defeat the memory of people's grandfathers and great-grandfathers that easily," Raczynski said in an interview with Reuters.
"This (Soviet-era crimes) is a matter that affects millions of our fellow citizens and ... is a problem of the entire former Soviet Union and of all the ex-Soviet bloc," he said. "So one way or another, people will do this work."
Raczynski said that his own grandfather had affected by the Stalinist Terror of 1936-38, in which more than 700,000 people were executed and many more were imprisoned or tortured.
ar, aw/dj (AFP, dpa, Reuters)