Russia's Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the closure of Memorial International, one of the country's most prominent NGOs.
The organization faced charges under the Russia's controversial NGO laws, which demands groups which are funded from abroad to clearly mark all their material as issued by "a foreign agent."
Opposition groups, however, believe Memorial prompted the ire of the government by gathering information on millions killed by the state under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
Dozens of people gathered in freezing temperatures to support Memorial in front of the Supreme Court building in Moscow. Supporters chanted "Shame!" when hearing the verdict. The NGO tweeted images of police carrying away a protester.
'False image of the USSR'
Addressing the Supreme Court, prosecutor Alexei Zhafyarov said Memorial International was distorting history.
"It is obvious that Memorial creates a false image of the USSR as a terrorist state by speculating on the topic of political repression of the 20th century," Zhafyarov said during Tuesday's hearing.
He claimed that the extensive lists of victims of Stalinist repression, compiled by Memorial International, also contained "Nazi offenders with blood of Soviet citizens on their hands."
"This is why we, the descendants of [WWII] victors, are forced to watch for attempts to rehabilitate traitors of the motherland and Nazi collaborators," he said.
Prosecutors claimed the organization is not only hiding "the fact of filling the role of the foreign agent" but is also trying to influence the government's policy and the public opinion.
Memorial lawyer Henry Reznik described the prosecutor's comments in favor of the ban as "reminiscent of 1930s."
"I am absolutely convinced that this demand was illegal," Reznik said. "But it is a political decision."
Navalny's case highlighted by Memorial activists
Memorial is Russia's oldest human rights watchdog. It was founded in 1987, four years before the end of the Soviet Union, with Soviet dissident and Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov serving as its chairman. It now consists of two legal entities — Memorial International, which deals with Soviet-era crimes, and Memorial Human Rights Center, which deals with political prisoners in modern-day Russia. The latter also speaks out in favor of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and other opponents of President Vladimir Putin.
Russian prosecutors are also pushing fora ban of the Human Rights Center . The ruling in that process is expected on Wednesday. This week, Memorial representative and Gulag historian Yuri Dmitriyev was sentenced to 15 years in a penal colony for allegedly abusing his adopted daughter.
Stalin-era crimes a sore spot
Many view the push to ban Memorial as a bid to finally end the era of political freedoms started by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s.
Moscow-based reporter Felix Light told DW that Memorial's activity "very much upset" parts of Russia's modern political establishment and "certainly Russian security services which are very, very influential in the current Russian government."
"What we saw today from the prosecutors who spoke in the Supreme Court was almost an indictment of these attempts to memorialize the Stalinist crimes," he said. "Prosecutors argued that Russians should not pay attention to these crimes, they should not be ashamed and they should sort of revel in the legacy of the victory in World War II."
Memorial International chief defiant after the ban
Jan Raczynski, the chairman of Memorial International, told the Interfax news agency that his organization will appeal the verdict in Russia, and — if necessary — go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Memorial will continue to operate as usual until all appeals against the ban are exhausted, he added.
"The prosecutors are not able to stop Memorial's work," he said, noting that there were "many people who identify with Memorial but do not belong to any organization."
"Memorial is not just two organizations that are currently being targeted. There are many others, which are not listed as foreign agents," he said.
Sending a signal to Russia
Talking to DW, executive board member for Memorial in Germany Vera Ammer said the ban has not yet come into force.
"Of course, we will try to reverse the verdict, but I don't think there is much of a chance of that," she said.
She said that both the process against Memorial International and Memorial Human Rights Center were part of a "plan" to destroy them.
"And, by doing so, to send a signal to all of Russia that this kind of work is unwanted, including both the protection of human rights and the critical analysis of the past ," Ammer added.
Tatiana Glushkova, a lawyer for Memorial International, told DW that it would be legally difficult to continue their work.
"We hope to continue our work until it is somehow legal. The problem is that continuing the work of an organization after its dissolution can be considered a crime of non-enforcement of a judicial decision, so that's why continuing out work appears to be a little bit problematic for us," she said.
"Fortunately the judgement does not say that liquidation commission will be a governmental one, so we hope that we can give the archives to another NGO that can continue our work."
Putin is consolidating power
Pavel Andreyev, one of the directors of International Memorial, said Russia was cracking down on human rights organizations as part of an attempt by Russian President Vladimir Putin to consolidate his power.
"Putin is more than 20 years in power and they are now preparing [for him to continue his rule]," he told DW. "That's why they are cracking down on all these independent organizations."
He explained that Memorial collected contemporary evidence of human rights abuses as well as historical, possibly appearing as a threat to Putin.
"Memorial isn't only a historical society, and we not only work with Stalin's repressions, but also, the biggest part of Memorial's work is human rights in modern Russia," he said.
Another reason he cited for the crackdown was the soviet and KGB history of Putin and fellow oligarchs.
He denied that Memorial constituted an opposition group, and said in a well-functioning society, it would be an uncontroversial organization.
Support from Gorbachev
Putin himself criticized Memorial for advocating on behalf of "terrorist and extremist organizations" and pointed to mistakes in their data.
Gorbachev, however, spoke out in favor of the organization last month, saying its continued operation was useful to the state.
"Memorial's activity has always been aimed at restoring historical justice, preserving the memory of hundreds of thousands of causalities, disallowing similar events in the present and the future," Gorbachev said in a joint statement with a fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov.
Ruling slammed in Germany
The German Foreign Ministry said the ruling was "more than incomprehensible" and stood in contradiction to Russia's international obligations to protect fundamental civil rights.
"As part of an international network, Memorial makes an indispensable contribution to researching, documenting and preventing serious human rights violations and is thus also an expression of our common European identity to clearly identify and resolve violations of human rights," the ministry said in a statement. "Justified criticism from organizations like Memorial should be listened to. The decision causes us great concern not least because it deprives the victims of oppression and repression of their voice."
A group of German watchdogs, including the German branch of Amnesty International, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation and the government agency in charge of dealing with crimes committed in former East Germany decried the ruling as a "heavy blow for the Russian society, the neighboring societies, and for all of Europe."
By banning Memorial, the Russian state "gave a devastating account of itself — it is fighting the processing of its own history of injustice and wants to monopolize individual and collective memory."
The ruling also "exposed the full absurdity of the law on 'foreign agents'," they said.
dj/rt (AFP, Reuters)