Russia's Justice Ministry Targets Human Rights Group ‘Memorial’

"Memorial" under pressure in Russia. Images edited by Kevin Rothrock.

“Memorial” under pressure in Russia. Images edited by Kevin Rothrock.

“Memorial,” one of Russia's oldest, best respected human rights organizations, might soon go the way of the dodo. Earlier this month, on October 9, the Justice Ministry asked Russia's High Court to liquidate part of Memorial, and judges obligingly set a hearing for November 13. So far, the Justice Ministry hasn't said much to elaborate its grievances against the human rights group, but Memorial says the main issue is that officials want it to adopt a more centralized organizational structure.

Memorial was registered in 1992 as an umbrella organization overseeing more than 60 separate NGOs throughout Russia, many of which remain legally unaffiliated with each other. The group as a whole engages in human rights advocacy for victims of the Russian state, both past and present, focusing on victims of the Gulag and the North Caucasus.

The Justice Ministry's lawsuit followed a special program on Russian television defaming Memorial, accusing the organization of aiding and abetting “extremists and terrorists.”

Writing on Facebook, Pavel Andreev, the head of a Memorial office in Komi, dismissed the possibility that the Kremlin will force his group to close shop. The accusations, he says, are just another hurdle in Russia's frequently changing legal landscape. As laws have altered since Memorial was founded, the organization simply needs to draw up new agreements with its subsidiaries to comply fully with federal regulations.

Так что моя оценка на данный момент: значение новости преувеличено. Речь о какой-либо травле не идет, это юридическая ситуация, выход из которой найден и реализуется. «Мемориал» безусловно продолжит свою работу.

In my assessment at this time, the importance of this news is exaggerated. It’s not about any harassment, it is a legal situation, and a solution will be found and implemented. Memorial will definitely continue its work.

A day later, on October 11, Memorial released its own statement, sounding a bit more alarmed:

Претензии Минюста совершенно беспочвенны – не случайно в ответ на наше недоумение мы так и не смогли получить никаких ссылок на нормы закона. Нам представляется недопустимой сама ситуация, когда Минюст противозаконно пытается ограничивать конституционное право граждан на объединение.

The Ministry of Justice’s claims are groundless, and it's not by chance that we haven't been able to get reference to any legal provisions in response to our confusion. It seems to us to be an unacceptable situation, when the Ministry of Justice is trying illegally to restrict the constitutional right of citizens to form associations.

In 2009, Chechnya's strongman leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, took Memorial to court, where he accused the group of libel, after its human rights chairman, Oleg Orlov, suggested that Kadyrov might be complicit in the murder of Memorial activist Natalia Estemirova. In 2011, the organization was forced to halt almost entirely its operations in Nalchik, located in the southern Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, after two of its lawyers working in the area received death threats.

The most recent “liquidation threat” isn't Memorial's first, either. A law passed in 2012 requires the group to register with the Justice Ministry as a “foreign agent” because it accepts funding from abroad. Like other Russian NGOs working in the field of human rights, Memorial refused to register with the government and has instead taken the state to court to overturn the law. Memorial has joined other NGOs in a lawsuit against the Russian government at the European Court of Human Rights, too.

As in the past, Memorial could very well find a way to stave off destruction and survive into the future. Less than two weeks ago, Valery Fedotov, the head of the Kremlin's Human Rights Council, said he supports Memorial's work. He's even offered to mediate talks between the group and the Justice Ministry:

А Минюст должен действовать по закону, если в уставе организации нарушения. Поэтому мы поможем им найти общий язык.

The Ministry of Justice should act according to the law, if there are charter violations. Therefore we will help them to find a common language.

Just this week, on October 21, Russia's Justice Ministry indicated that it might be willing to withdraw its request to dismantle Memorial, if the organization is able to restructure itself to the government's satisfaction at an upcoming conference. If the group is successful in appeasing the authorities, it would be just the latest in Memorial's long history of political adaptations.

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