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‘Total repression’: Russia orders top rights group shut, capping year of crackdowns

The
shuttering of the group Memorial closes a year in which the top Kremlin critic
was jailed, his political movement banned and many of his allies forced to
flee. Moscow says it is simply enforcing laws to thwart extremism and shield
the country from foreign influence.

“This
is a bad signal showing that our society and our country are moving in the
wrong direction,” the TASS news agency quoted Memorial Board Chairman Jan
Raczynski as saying.

Closing the
group would increase the risk of “total repression” in Russia, one of
Memorial’s lawyers, Maria Eismont, said during the final hearings on Tuesday.

Memorial has
called the lawsuit politically motivated. The Interfax news agency quoted a
lawyer for the group as saying it would appeal, both in Russia and at the
European Court of Human Rights.

Established
in the “glasnost” era of Soviet liberalisation by prominent
dissidents including the widow of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Andrei Sakharov,
Memorial initially focused on documenting the crimes of the Stalinist era.

It served as
Russia’s main rights group through two wars in Chechnya in the 1990s, and has
more recently spoken out against repression of critics under President Vladimir
Putin.

The
authorities placed the group on an official list of “foreign agents”
in 2015, a move that entailed numerous restrictions on its activities.

Last month,
prosecutors accused the Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Centre and Memorial
International, its parent structure, of violating the foreign agent law.

Prosecutors
said Memorial International breached the regulations by not marking all its
publications, including social media posts, with the label. They accused the
Moscow-based centre of condoning terrorism and extremism.

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Speaking at
the final hearing on Tuesday, a state prosecutor said Memorial had organised
large-scale media campaigns aimed at discrediting the Russian authorities,
according to TASS.

The group
has denied any serious violations and called the lawsuits political. It has
said its members would continue their work even if it is dissolved.

Putin, a
former spy in the Soviet KGB security service, said this month Memorial had
defended organisations Russia considers extremist and terrorist, and that its
list of victims of Soviet-era repression included Nazi collaborators.

The past
year has also seen Putin’s leading critic Alexei Navalny jailed on charges he
says were trumped up, after returning from Germany for treatment for poisoning
that Western countries describe as a state-backed assassination attempt.
Navalny’s political network was banned as extremist and many of his allies have
been jailed or fled.

Russia
defends the independence of its legal system and says its laws on extremism and
foreign influence are similar to those in other countries. It denies any role
in poisoning Navalny.

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