“Contempt for the law and violation of the rights and freedoms of citizens, especially the right to information.” With the reading of the indictment, Judge Alla Nazarova begins Thursday’s hearing in Russia’s Supreme Court against Russia’s oldest human rights organization Memorial.
In the pastel-colored courtroom, decorated with flags and weapons, the judge weighed in on whether Memorial had broken Russian law. The organization is said to have repeatedly failed to mention the mandatory label ‘foreign agent’ in its communications. Due to foreign funding, Memorial was forced onto that label as early as 2013, and a warning should be mentioned in all texts, including in online posts. In some cases, employees would have failed to do so. According to public prosecutor Igor Krasnov, the authoritative human rights organization thus poses a threat to the security of Russians. He will be in the room this Thursday opposite Nazarova. If it comes to a conviction, Memorial will be dissolved and the organization will have to close its doors.
‘Destruction of the truth’
It’s crowded in front of the courthouse entrance. Dozens of citizens have come to show their support. Although a hearing was closed earlier this week “due to corona measures”, that measure will not apply this Thursday. Only after a long wait do lawyers, witnesses, interested EU diplomats and a group of journalists manage to work their way through the narrow entrance. After a short press moment, about thirty journalists are sent to a separate room, where the session must be followed via a screen. The connection is bad and is interrupted several times.
According to 69-year-old history teacher Alexei Bogantsev, who stands outside the court, Memorial’s persecution is “a turning point” in Russia’s modern history. He has come to show his support. “The government has proceeded to destroy what has been built up over the past thirty years by people who want to know the truth about their history.”
“Absurd” is a word that often comes up in and around the court. But besides being absurd, the spectacle for those involved is above all wry and cynical. Memorial is Russia’s most authoritative human rights organization and, since its foundation in 1988, has been committed to the memory of the millions of victims of the Soviet regime through historical research and education. In addition, it assists citizens who are at risk of becoming victims of human rights violations under the current Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
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Although prosecutor Krasnov accuses the organization of posing a danger to Russians, no aggrieved persons are mentioned during the hearing. “Let them bring up a victim, an adult or a child, whose rights we have violated,” Memorial chairman Jan Ratshinski, who is in the dock today, told NRC earlier this week.
Last week revealed news site Meduza that almost all alleged violations were reported by the local FSB branch in the Caucasian republic of Ingushetia. There Memorial has been persecuted very violently by the local authorities for years. Memorial staff assume that the FSB wants to take revenge for the organization’s human rights work in the region.
Prosecutor on the sanctions list
Prosecutor Krasnov and Judge Nazarova are no strangers to Russia and are known to be very loyal to the Kremlin. In recent years, Nazarova determined the fate of various political and civil organizations, which she banned or described as ‘extremist’. Krasnov, who was appointed by President Putin in 2020, this year worked to prosecute and condemn opposition leader Alexei Navalny and hundreds of supporters. That’s why he ended up this year on the European and American sanctions lists.
One of the supporters on the street is Marina Artomonova. She is pessimistic about the outcome of the lawsuit. Her only bright spot is the many young people who have come today. “Not everyone wants to leave Russia. People, including young people, want to live here. But in a normal and civilized country.”
After four and a half hours, the first twilight has already set in, Judge Nazarova decides that the hearing will be adjourned. The continuation of the spectacle will follow on December 14. Asked how President Putin views Memorial’s work, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said it is “very important for the president that NGOs operate within the framework of Russian law.”