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Russia’s Ministry of Justice has accused a leading rights group of undermining the country’s “constitutional rule” and using foreign funding to harm Russia.

Memorial Human Rights Center – known worldwide for its courageous work, including in armed conflict zones – learned of the accusations when the ministry delivered the official findings of its planned inspection of the group, which had taken place this fall.

On the night before the infamous “foreign agents” law came into force back in 2012, unknown individuals sprayed graffiti reading, “Foreign Agent! ♥ USA” on the buildings hosting the offices of three prominent NGOs in Moscow, including Memorial. © 2012 Yulia Klimova/Memorial

In the inspection’s “concluding act,” the ministry wrote that the group worked to “undermine the foundations of Russia’s constitutional rule, by calling for the dismantling of the powers that be and changing the country’s political regime.” According to the ministry, Memorial was doing all this by fostering negative public attitudes toward the government, specifically through its criticism of the government’s actions and policies.

What the ministry conveniently ignored is that the Russian Constitution – and Russia’s international human rights obligations – guarantee free expression, in particular critical expression on issues of public interest. The ministry also chooses to ignore that their harassment and persecution of independent critics gives rise to violations of domestic and international human rights obligations and is wholly incompatible with democratic society based on rule of law and respect for human rights.

Just a few days earlier, authorities in Ingushetia, a small region in Russia's Caucasus, searched the house and the office of a prominent local human rights defender, Magomed Mutsolgov, alleging that he and the group under his leadership were engaged in anti-Russian sabotage. At the time, one may have thought: this is the North Caucasus, a particularly high-risk place for human rights defenders in Russia, and thus rather an exception than a rule.

But now that something very similar is happening to a high profile, world renowned organization in Moscow, it’s becoming crystal clear: targeting of human rights defenders is not an exception but the tactic of the Russian government.

The Ministry of Justice can now use its own “findings” to go to court and demand that Memorial be shut down. It could also ask the prosecutors to open a criminal case against Memorial for allegedly attempting to dismantle the constitutional rule.

What Russia’s international partners do in response to this development, and in particular whether they close their eyes to the Russian government squeezing the very life out of Russian civil society or stand in solidarity with its citizens, will help to determine what happens next.

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