On November 18, 2021 a press conference "Lawsuits to liquidate Memorials: absurd, illegal, and dangerous for civil society" was held in Moscow
The conference was attended by:
Elena Zhemkova, Executive Director of the International Memorial;
Tatiana Glushkova, member of the Council of the Human Rights Center Memorial, Senior Lawyer of the program ‘Human Rights Advocacy with the Use of International Legal Arrangements’;
Alexander Cherkasov, Chairman of the Council of Human Rights Center ‘Memorial’;
Tatiana Margolina, member of the Board of the Perm Memorial, former Commissioner for Human Rights in the Perm Territory (2005–2017).
We got in touch online with Dunja Mijatovic, Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, and Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders. Both speakers mentioned the importance of the work by late Natalya Estemirova, an employee of the Grozny office of Memorial Human Rights Center, on monitoring and analyzing the armed conflict in Chechnya.
The event was attended by dozens of Russian and European journalists as well as members of the EU Delegation in the Russian Federation and representatives of the embassies of Austria, Spain, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Switzerland and Estonia.
Here are some of the key messages delivered by the speakers.
Elena Zhemkova: ‘Bureaucratic issues are not a sufficient ground for closing an organization that has been standing up for people over many years.’
Memorial is the center for knowledge and skills. We have been operating in a fair and observable manner over a number of years, in Moscow and in other regions of Russia.
We do not carry out anyone's orders; we are not anyone's agents. It is just the opposite: we come up with a project and then persuade people and institutions to support us.
The claims that are being brought against us are of bureaucratic or legalistic nature. This is just one minor failure to comply with the requirements and it does not even present a sufficient ground for imposing a fine, but we have been fined a number of times. We paid all the fines but nevertheless the authorities brought this issue up again and are trying to resume their claims.
Bureaucratic issues are not a sufficient ground for closing an organization that has been standing up for people over many years.
Tatiana Glushkova: ‘The only purpose of putting people on the lists of political prisoners is to assess the validity of their persecution.’
The Foreign Agent Law is written in such a way that it is almost impossible to comply with it. It’s impossible to understand what needs labeling. Until 2019, there had been no requirement to label the content in the social networks, we learned about it from the administrative protocols of Roskomnadzor (The Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media).
The Memorial Human Rights Center is charged with the violation of the law ‘On the Judicial System of the Russian Federation’. The General Prosecutor's Office interpreted the ‘persecuted for political reasons’ status of a person as a refusal to execute court decisions. But such an interpretation is absurd: a public discussion of whether the decision was fair and lawful is not an evasion of a court’s decision.
Since some of the political prisoners were sentenced under extremist articles, the General Prosecutor's Office claims that the Memorial Human Rights Center justifies participation in terrorist and extremist organizations. It is not correct. The only purpose of having a prisoner included in the lists is to assess the validity and fairness of their criminal prosecution.
One of the most absurd facts in both lawsuits is that the organizations are being accused of violation of a number of international regulations, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Only a State may comply or not comply with international documents, but not a person or an organization.
Alexander Cherkasov: ‘Сlaims against us have no ground: it is just the Government’s arbitrary will’
The Memorial Human Rights Center is not charged with any malevolent deliberate violations for which organizations are subject to liquidation. If a violation can be corrected, it cannot be grounds for closing an organization.
The lawsuit contains specific claims to the Memorial Human Rights Center, namely the claim about the Political Prisoner List that we have been keeping since 2008. This is not the first time such claims have been put forward. The prosecutor's submission dated April 30, 2013, indicated that we should be included in the Foreign Agent List for keeping a list of political prisoners.
But now the complaints about the Political Prisoner List have changed. It turns out that it contains ‘signs of justification of terrorism and extremism’. Apart from the formal side of the matter of which Tatiana Glushkova has spoken at this conference before me, there are other details to discuss. This claim is based on a poor-quality expert evaluation done by the infamous Center for Socio-Cultural Studies (it carried out expert evaluations in the cases of Pussy Riot, Yuri Dmitriev and others).
The letters and the numbers, the paragraphs and the dates confirm that the claims against us have no ground. It is just the Government’s arbitrary will which is being exercised for the last ten years through the so-called Foreign Agents Law. It is the will to subdue everything which is not under its control, to take NGOs under the control of the government, and to eliminate them if they resist.
We shall fight for our rights.
Dunja Mijatovic: I will appeal to the General Prosecutor’s Office against the persecution and attempts to close the Memorial.
Shutdown of the Memorial would severely affect not only the organizations involved, but the whole Russian civil society; it would threaten human rights, leaving victims of injustice without support including filing claims to the European Court of Human Rights.
The Memorial’s mission is to preserve the historical memory. Its shutdown will have a disastrous effect on the vision and values of the new generation oblivious of violations of human rights that occurred in the past.
The Foreign Agent Law is misused as never before. It stigmatizes organizations, media and people, curtails freedom of speech, suppresses the civil society and does not meet the European standards for human rights protection. This law must be repealed.
As a member State of the Council of Europe, Russia should hold up to human rights standards and let non-governmental organizations promote civil rights.
I will appeal to the government and to the General Prosecutor’s Office against the persecution and attempts to close the Memorial.
Mary Lawlor: I believe that the Memorial will find the way to carry on with its work, no matter what.
The Memorial human rights group is not a ‘foreign agent’ or state enemy. These organizations deserve great respect for all they have done for human rights advocacy, for revealing and preserving the truth about the past.
The Russian government is persecuting the Memorial group on purpose. In case of its shutdown, the last human rights organizations existing in Russia will not endure long.
I believe that these people with unyielding perseverance and commitment will find the way to carry on.
Tatyana Margolina: claims for shutdown of the Memorial group are a wink and nod for those who deny persecution for political reasons in Russia.
5% of Perm Memorial members are political repression survivors, over 90% are families of victims. The most prominent historians, archivists, journalists, educators and local history experts have joined together to create this organization. When the news broke that the claims against Memorial had been filed to the Supreme Court, family members of state terror victims started calling me. ‘Why are we being victimized twice? Our grandparents and parents were persecuted, and now we are facing persecution for exercising our constitutional right to form an organization,` said a granddaughter of one of the victims.
Claims against Memorial and attempts to close it are a wink and a node for those who deny that political repressions were part of Russia’s history. It is a backslide on the cooperative work of the Memorial and the Government that lasted for decades. It will split the society, resulting in truth deniers lifting up their heads and raising their voice.
The problem is that any civil rights-related activity is being interpreted as political. It is a big problem that a human rights organization is viewed and treated as a political actor.