A COURT in Russia has shut down Memorial International and the Memorial Human Rights Centre. Memorial International is one of the oldest human rights organisations in Russia. Dating back to the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, its prime purpose has been to investigate the crimes of the Stalinist period, including the purges and the fate of all those sent to the gulags. Its sister organisation, the Memorial Human Rights Centre, focuses on modern political prisoners and the treatment of refugees and minorities in Putin’s Russia.
Both organisations have been closed down under Russia’s ‘Foreign Agent’ laws. Organisations which are designated as foreign agents are subject to strict controls. For comparison, it would be like the British Government designating Amnesty International as a foreign agent because it operates outside the UK, even though it was founded by a British lawyer and has its headquarters in London, and then closing it down because it exposed human rights abuses in the UK.
These laws have been used against dozens of other NGOs and media outlets critical of the government, but most people thought Memorial International would be safe. 127,000 people signed a letter in support and former president, Mikhail Gorbachev issued a statement.
The long-term activity of Memorial has always been aimed at restoring historical justice, preserving the memory of hundreds of thousands of victims during the years of repression, preventing such things now and in the futureJoint Statement by Mikhail Gorbachev and the Novaya Gazeta editor, Dmitry Muratov
One reason for the action is the desire by Putin to perpetuate the myth of an unblemished Russian history in which the heroic opponents of Nazism could do no wrong, especially the one who signed the Hitler Stalin Pact. Memorial International, by investigating the fate of so many victims of the Gulag, are supposed to be exonerating “traitors and nazi henchmen” according to one of the prosecutors. They claim Memorial International is in the pay of foreign powers, ironically echoing the claims by Tsarist Russia that Lenin and the Bolsheviks were German agents!
Putin is rewriting history, not out of any loyalty to the old Soviet Union, but to serve his purpose in the current political situation. Russia does feel threatened by NATO on its borders. Putin wants to present a strongman image at home and abroad. He labels his internal opponents as ‘the enemy within’ serving foreign interests. Hence the crackdown on defenders of human rights in today’s Russia.
Amnesty International have condemned the closure. In their latest human rights report they condemn the endemic use of torture in Russia alongside a range of other human rights abuses.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed chronic under-resourcing in health care. The authorities used the pandemic as a pretext to continue the crackdown on all dissent, including through amendments to a vaguely worded law on “fake news” and tightening restrictions on public gatherings. Peaceful protesters, human rights defenders and civic and political activists faced arrest and prosecution. Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses intensified. Torture remainedAmnesty International Report 2020/21
endemic, as did near total impunity for perpetrators. The right to a fair trial was routinely violated while legal amendments resulted in a further reduction in judicial independence. Reports of domestic violence rose sharply during COVID-19 lockdown measures, although the draft law on domestic violence remained stalled in Parliament. LGBTI people continued to face discrimination and persecution. Thousands of labour migrants lost their jobs during the
pandemic but were unable to leave because of border closures. Evidence emerged to corroborate allegations of war crimes by Russian forces in Syria.
The closure of Memorial international has rightly been condemned by Amnesty international and the Auschwitz Memorial Museum. But western governments who speak out against Russia are themselves busily undermining democracy at home. The Amnesty International Report is highly critical of the UK.
The government response to COVID-19 raised human rights concerns, including in relation to health, immigration policies, domestic abuse and housing. Instances of racial discrimination and excessive force against protesters by the police were documented. Northern Ireland made progress on same-sex marriage and abortion, but full accountability for past violations remained unrealized. New licences for military exports to Saudi Arabia resumed. Bills on counter-terrorism and overseas military operations endangered human rights. Extradition proceedings against Julian Assange threatened the right to freedom of expression.Amnesty International Report 2020/21
As yesterday’s news report showed, democracy is under attack around the world, and we in the UK are not immune. The right to protest, the right to vote, the right to citizenship are all under attack. Fascist regimes and dictatorships have triumphed in many mature parliamentary democracies: e.g. Germany, Italy, Spain, Argentina, Chile, Greece, Portugal. Democracy has subsequently been restored at great human cost. Better to defend democracy now and stop them in their tracks before it is too late.
Life long socialist. Now retired, I have been an office junior, a bookseller, a docker and a teacher. I write a lot and read a lot more. Committed member of the Society of Authors, English PEN and the National Education Union. Never voting Labour again.