Last week, Russia’s Justice Ministry filed a petition with the Moscow City Court seeking “liquidation” of the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG), a leading Russian human rights organization.
On May 12, I received one of MHG’s annual awards for contributions to human rights and the Russian human rights movement. By then, in the aftermath of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the authorities had shut down Human Rights Watch’s Moscow office, along with the offices of 14 other foreign nongovernmental organizations. I had already left the country with the rest of our team, and my 9-year-old son received the beautifully framed award on my behalf. I first saw it several weeks later, when he joined me in Tbilisi, Georgia, where I had relocated to continue my work. I generally don’t display awards and diplomas, but receiving one from MHG was so special that it now hangs on my wall.
MHG was founded in 1976 by Soviet dissidents to expose governmental repression. It lasted nine months before the government jailed or forced practically all its members into exile. After the USSR’s collapse, the group revived in the 1990’s under the leadership of Lyudmilla Alexeeva, a legendary human rights defender, and has been working tirelessly to expose abuses, build up a country-wide human rights movement in Russia, and advocate for the rule of law.
Last year, as part of their crackdown on critical voices, Russian authorities moved to shut down Memorial, the country’s tenacious human rights giant. Now, as Russian troops are perpetrating atrocities in Ukraine, and war censorship is escalating inside Russia, the government is attacking the remaining pillar of the country’s human rights movement.
The liquidation lawsuit is based on the Justice Ministry’s ad hoc inspection of MHG. The liquidation petition cites several supposed violations of Russia’s stifling legislation on nongovernmental organizations, including the group being registered in Moscow but operating elsewhere in Russia, and the group’s charter lacking information on the location of its executive body. These are obviously bureaucratic pretexts that could not justify such a drastic move.
This year, Moscow courts liquidated four other major human rights groups in addition to Memorial, so it’s hard to find optimism for a fair trial for MHG. But it’s not hard to be optimistic about Russia’s human rights movement. It outlasted the Soviet Union; it will outlast today’s oppressors.