‘The biggest threat in our 30-year history’ The rationale behind the Russian authorities’ attempt to liquidate the human rights group Memorial is absurd (even by its own logic)

Saffron Golikov / Kommersant

In November, Russia’s prosecutor general filed a lawsuit to liquidate Memorial International — Russia’s oldest and most authoritative human rights organization. Memorial was accused of violating Russia’s legislation on “foreign agents” by failing to include the required labels on its materials. Almost all of Memorial’s alleged violations were reported to Roskomnadzor, Russia’s federal censorship agency, by the FSB’s Ingushetia office. Meduza explains why that particular office has played such an important role in this story, and whether its complaints against Memorial are at all justified.

What was Memorial up to in Ingushetia?

Memorial International has offices in every region of the North Caucasus — except for Chechnya. Its office there was closed after Oyub Titiyev, the head of the office, was sentenced to four years in prison for alleged drug possession (human rights advocates have repeatedly claimed that the case was fabricated).

After Titiyev’s arrest, police searched Memorial’s Chechnya office, while the organization’s Ingushetia office, located in Nazran, was burned down. Memorial’s team believes the arson was linked to the persecution they faced in Chechnya; the perpetrators were never found. Titiyev was released early on parole, but his takeaway was that working for Memorial is currently too dangerous.

Memorial Human Rights Centre Chechnya office head Oyub TitiyevMemorial Human Rights Centre Chechnya office head Oyub TitiyevMagomed Chabayev / Kommersant

There have also long been tensions between Memorial and the Ingushetian security forces, though Memorial’s Ingushetia office is still working at full capacity.

“Ingushetia is a unique place. During the Chechen wars, it took in a large number of refugees, but the local security forces didn’t act so brutally,” said Alexander Cherkasov, head of Memorial. “And under [Republic of Ingushetia president from 2002-2008] Murat Zyazikov, it became the biggest flashpoint in the North Caucasus. After that, he was replaced by Yunus-bek Yevkurov, a former special forces officer, who did his best to conduct counterterrorism operations with a human face. Of course, they didn’t like us back then, either, to say the least. But Yevkurov deployed a smart-power strategy, which included conducting a dialogue with human rights advocates.”

According to Cherkasov, under Yevkurov, human rights activists in Ingushetia were mainly engaged in civilian control within the scope of counter-terrorism operations. Memorial also actively helped the suspects in the “Ingushetia Bolotnoe Case,” which was opened after a rally in Magas against a change in the border between Ingushetia and Chechnya in the spring of 2019. Since then, 52 people have been charged in the case. According to Memorial’s lawyer Natalia Morozova, the Ingushetian FSB’s attacks on Memorial are in part due to Memorial’s work defending the Bolotnoe Case suspects.

By 2020, Memorial had won a total of 15 cases in the European Court of Human Rights in Ingushetia: the state was deemed responsible for torturing and kidnapping Ingushetia residents, as well as conducting unjust trials. In the case Tsechoyev vs. Russia, argued by Memorial’s lawyers, for example, security officials were found guilty of torturing local resident Magomet Tsechoyev to extract confessions that led to his being sentenced to 13 years in prison. The Court ultimately ordered that the victims be paid over a million euros in compensation.

How Ingushetian officials fought against Memorial

In November 2021, the Prosecutor General called for Memorial International to be liquidated for showing “persistent disregard for the law.” Prosecutors claimed the organization had repeatedly committed violations and failed to correct them. All of the violations in question were related to the law on “foreign agents.”

The Prosecutor General’s Supreme Court lawsuit against the NGO consists of 20 points: Memorial failed to include the “foreign agent” label on its Facebook page, its Twitter profile, its VKontakte page, Instagram, YouTube, the site 1968.memo.ru, the victims of political repression database base.memo.ru, the database of USSR state security personnel nkvd.memo.ru, and the Topography of Terror website topos.memo.ru.

Two other administrative violations listed in the lawsuit have to do with the 2020 Moscow International Book Fair. A review conducted by the prosecutors has established that Memorial sold the books “Dad’s Letter: Letters sent by fathers from the Gulag to their children,” “Creativity and Everyday Life in the Gulag,” “The Sandarmokh Memorial Site,” and a Soviet history-themed board game called “74,” all without the “foreign agent” label. All of these books (except the Sandarmokh one), however, were published in 2015-2016 — long before the authorities declared Memorial a “foreign agent.”

The majority of the 20 violations listed in the Prosecutor General’s suit were compiled by Roskomnadzor at the request of the FSB’s Ingushetia office.

Another suit — this one intended to liquidate Memorial’s Human Rights Center — was filed by the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office at the Moscow City Court, though it’s also connected to the Ingushetian authorities. The suit is based on a ruling made by Moscow’s Tverskoy District Court, based on information obtained from Roskomnadzor, that Memorial had violated the law. It was the FSB’s Ingushetia office, however, that first informed Roskomnadzor of Memorial’s failure to include the “foreign agent” label on its Facebook, Vkontakte, and Twitter pages.

The Moscow Prosecutor’s lawsuit includes four violations, three of which are the missing “foreign agent” labels on social media that the Ingushetian FSB agents pointed out. The fourth violation, brought to their attention by a citizen named Andrey Shuvalov, is Memorial’s failure to include the label on their site legal.memo.hrc.org. Two entities are being held accountable for each violation: the overall organization and its leader, Alexander Charkasov.

What accusations is Memorial facing?

Russia’s law on “foreign agent” nonprofits was passed in 2012. Starting then, any NGO designated a “foreign agent” was required to include a special label on all of its materials. Unlike “foreign agent” media outlets, which are required by a separate Roskomnadzor order to include a specific text in a specific font size to their content, the exact requirements for NGOs were not specified. The law only states that materials “must be accompanied by an indication that they have been published or distributed by a non-profit organization that performs the function of a foreign agent.” There was no indication, however, that that message must be included at the beginning of every message (like in the case of “foreign agent” media organizations), for example. Lawyers for Memorial International also complained to Roskomnadzor that it’s unclear what exactly counts as the kind of “material” that must be labelled.

In 2014, the Justice Ministry added Memorial’s Human Rights Center to its “foreign agents” registry, and in 2016, its parent organization, Memorial International. Back then, the organization announced that it considered the decision unlawful and would appeal it in court. Nevertheless, after paying several fines, they decided to start including the label after all, according to Memorial lawyer Natalia Morozova. Indeed, a report from a verification conducted by the Justice Ministry in 2016 (Meduza has obtained a copy) said that Memorial had corrected its label violations, and that no new violations had been found.

In July 2019, however, Roskomnadzor received a report from the FSB’s Ingushetia office. In the report, the officers claimed Memorial was once again in violation of the “foreign agent” legislation, having failed to include the label on its social media posts. The report also included screenshots: a post about an exhibit dedicated to the book “Heart of a Dog,” a Facebook post telling the story of the Stalin-era repression victim Vasily Chubukov, a post quoting an anonymous letter to Stalin about famine on collective farms, and a post announcing a book about the Katyn massacre.

It’s true that Memorial failed to include the label on its social media pages — their reasoning was that these pages included links to their main site, which had the required label. “The FSB just looked at the content of our social media pages, which Roskomnadzor hadn’t previously required to be labeled — there had been no mention of anything but our website — and sent a ten-page report to Roskomnadzor,” said Cherkasov.

Roskomnadzor reviewed the FSB report a month later. “After we were called to report to Roskomnadzor about the complaint, we started checking all of our social media posts and including the label everywhere,” said Morozova. But the Tverskoy District Court still found Memorial, as well as its general director, Yan Rachinsky, guilty of administrative violations.

Then, in November 2019, someone named Andrey Shuvaklov (Meduza was unable to find out who he is by the time of publication) filed a complaint with Roskomnadzor about the lack of foreign agent labels on several of Memorial’s sites — base.memo.ru, 1968.memo.ru, and nkvd.memo.ru — as well as on the “Blogs” page on Ekho Moskvy’s website.

“We didn’t label these websites because we thought about it like this: these are actually databases, not some kind of new information that we created. And on the “Year of Human Rights” website (1968.memo.ru), there was a note that said it was created using money from the Canadian Embassy and the Heinrich Böll Foundation — so readers were already informed about the foreign funding,” said Morozova.

Several other reports were compiled about Shuvaklov’s complaint, and the Tverskoy District Court ruled that administrative offenses had been committed. All of these sites now include labels about the organization’s “foreign agent” status.

Memorial has already paid more than six thousand rubles ($81 thousand) in fines for violating “foreign agent” status disclosure requirements. The money was collected via crowdfunding. For each violation, both the organization itself and its leader, Yan Rachinsky, were fined.

In 2020, at Memorial International’s request, Moscow municipal deputy Yelena Kotenochkina wrote a letter to Roskomnadzor asking them to clearly explain the labelling requirements for foreign agents to ensure Memorial could avoid further violations. The agency said in a response that “existing legislation does not include requirements for the form and order [of ‘foreign agent’ labels],” and that the Justice Ministry was responsible for monitoring NGOs.

The Prosecutor General’s lawsuit highlights the “systematic character” of Memorial’s violations. At the same time, the Roskomnadzor reports that the suit relies on were compiled over a relatively short time period — mostly during the fall of 2019, when Roskomnadzor was preparing several such reports every day. What’s more, Memorial didn’t find out that it was required to include the foreign agent label on every social media post until after it had been fined — despite the fact that the Justice Ministry hadn’t previously considered a lack of “foreign agent” status notification on social media to be a violation.

In addition, as proof that Memorial’s violations were intentional, the Prosecutor Generation cited statements made by the organization nine years ago, in September 2012. In the statements, Memorial criticized the “foreign agents” law, which had just been passed.

The Prosecutor General considers Memorial’s failure to include the “foreign agent” label on all of its websites and social media pages to be a violation of the Russian Constitutions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. “The [of the organization] is a proportionate response to the violations committed,” said the agency.

Why the authorities chose now to try to liquidate Memorial

“After he [Yunus-bek Yevkurov] left office, they cracked down on us — and not because of the work we were doing,” said Alexander Cherkasov, referring to the fact that the Ingushetian FSB’s objections were related not to Memorial’s work in Ingushetia, but to their lack of “foreign agent” labels.

The FSB’s first complaint to Roskomnadzor was filed in August 2019 — a month after Yunus-bek Yevkurov left office. He was replaced by former Prosecutor of Ingushetia Mahmud-Ali Kalimatov, who, according to Cherkasov, is currently remaining “inconspicuous,” not getting involved in the dispute between the authorities and Memorial.

For the FSB in Ingushetia, this has all been just a way to get revenge: Memorial reported on the protests in Magas and assisted the suspects involved in criminal and administrative cases, which annoyed security officials, so they decided to go after the organization, according to Memorial Chairman Oleg Orlov.

“If it hadn’t been Ingushetia, they would have found something else,” said Orlov. “Most NGOs are currently facing fines, which can be the basis for liquidation — but that’s a political decision. The thing is, the means to do this was created in 2012. Back then, we said it was a repressive law that would allow the authorities to nitpick organizations and eventually ban them altogether. Now, nine years have passed, and nine years later, they’ve finally decided to use it.”

Memorial’s leaders consider the Prosecutor General’s lawsuit the biggest threat to the organization’s existence in its entire 30-year history. Still, they haven’t stopped their work, according to Memorial head Yan Rachinsky. “It’s difficult to imagine that human rights violations will stop in Russia after Memorial’s liquidation,” said lawyer Natalia Morozova, “so we’ll continue to work, most likely in other formats.”

Story by Anastasia Yakoreva

Translation by Sam Breazeale

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