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The Silencing of Dissent: Russia’s Memorial Human Rights Center Faces Closure Amid Putin’s Crackdown

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Image Credit: Правозащитный Центр "Мемориал"

Russia’s crackdown on civil society has extended to antiwar protesters, independent news media and human rights organizations, silencing dissent and sources of information amid the war in Ukraine. Under Russia’s foreign agents law, nongovernmental organizations receiving funding from another country experience increased scrutiny and risk of liquidation. We speak with Anna Dobrovolskaya, executive director of the Memorial Human Rights Center, one of Russia’s oldest human rights organizations, which monitors human rights violations and provides legal assistance to asylum seekers. Russian courts ordered it dissolved in December 2021. “It’s the approach of the Russian government to widely and silently put some limitations on people who are just willing to speak openly,” says Dobrovolskaya. “The government is just trying to close everything down.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

As we continue our coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we go to Moscow, where the Russian government is intensifying its crackdown on civil society, the independent press and antiwar protesters. Over the past two weeks alone, more than 13,000 Russian protesters have been arrested after taking to the streets in scores of cities denouncing the invasion. Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a law that imposes jail terms of up to 15 years for the spreading of so-called false information about the military or its activity in Ukraine. Media organizations are now barred from describing Russia’s actions in Ukraine as an invasion or a war. Earlier today, the former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, now the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, criticized the Russian crackdown.

MICHELLE BACHELET: In the Russian Federation, the space for discussion or criticism of public policies, including its military action against Ukraine, is increasingly and profoundly restricted. Some 12,700 people have been arbitrarily arrested for holding peaceful antiwar protests, and media are being required to use only official information and terms. I remain concerned about the use of repressive legislation that impedes the exercise of civil and political rights and criminalizing nonviolent behavior. … Fundamental freedoms and the work of human rights defenders continue to be undermined by widespread use of the 2012 so-called foreign agent law, as evidenced by the judicial closure of two organizations set up by the widely respected civil society group Memorial.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, speaking earlier today.

We’re joined now by the head of the Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow, which Bachelet referenced in her remarks. In December, the Memorial Human Rights Center was ordered shut down, along with its sister organization Memorial International. Both groups were accused of violating Russia’s foreign agent law. Anna Dobrovolskaya, the executive director of the Memorial Human Rights Center, is joining us now from Moscow.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about the situation right now in Moscow, in Russia overall, when it comes to dissent, and what’s happening to the Memorial Human Rights Center?

ANNA DOBROVOLSKAYA: Yes. Hello, everyone. Hello, Amy and Juan. And thank you for having me here.

The situation in Moscow is quite complicated. A lot of human rights activists, independent journalists, even musicians, theater people, poets, and activists of all kind are fleeing the country. They are going somewhere to the safe places from where they can continue talking openly without being sanctioned by the law you have just mentioned. There are also organizations who are staying within the country and trying to help during the peaceful protests, trying to help the refugees which will be coming also to Russia from Ukraine, and who are basically trying to keep their regular work, because, as usually, the level of human rights violations, of torture, of police abuse, and the level of general brutality of the state is quite high. And unfortunately, without these organizations, we don’t know how longer the Russian society can be able to function.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Anna, back last year in August, your center published an updated version of the list of political prisoners in Russia. At the time, you said there were 410 people, a sharp increase from about 46 in 2015. Can you talk about who some of these people are and why there’s been such a huge increase in recent years of political prisoners?

ANNA DOBROVOLSKAYA: Yeah, because after 2014 and after the annexation of Crimea, the situation in Russia tightened up for civil society and for independent groups and activists. We had to split our list of political prisoners into two parts, and one part particularly includes only those people who are included to the list because they’re persecuted for being a part of a religious minority or of a certain group. And the majority of those groups are different Muslim groups, including the Crimean Tatars, not all the Crimean Tatars ethnically but those who are members of particular religious communities. It also recently included Jehovah Witnesses and other religious minorities. So, it’s about more than 100 people from those groups. And the rest are just people who are being accused of either violating the freedom of assembly and the organization laws or are being accused of saying something extremist on social media, or they are supporters of Alexei Navalny, and the list goes on. So, basically, it’s the approach of the Russian government to widely and disseminately put some limitations on the people who are just willing to speak openly and are willing to express their opinion. And a lot of that started happening also after the Crimea events. But basically, the first limitation of freedom of speech and the first limitation for NGO laws were imposed in Russia since 2006. So it’s a very long story.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of this foreign agents law and the label, your organization was accused of justifying terrorism and failing to use on its publication the foreign agent label. What is this law, and how do they interpret it in Russia?

ANNA DOBROVOLSKAYA: Yeah, finally — actually, in the final court decision, the extremism and terrorism allegations were dropped, and we are just the violent offenders of the foreign agent law.

The law itself says that if some organization or a media institution or a person receives foreign donations and is performing political activity, this organization or this person can be included to the foreign agent list. Official people from Russia keep saying that this is a copy of the Foreign Agent Registration Act from the United States. We made lots of analysis proving that this has nothing to do with FARA. But so, basically, political activity is — in this law, is understood as saying anything publicly which does not always fall in line with the official ideas of the government or governmental institutions.

And foreign donations or foreign funding can also be very differently defined. It can be from one dollar received from Armenia, or it can be — for organizations like ours, our budget is quite huge, because we operate in different regions, and, of course, we mostly operate thanks to the foreign donations.

If you are a foreign agent, you have to put a huge label on all your publications, on social media, on all your printed, like, leaflets, reports and stuff like that. And at the moment we were included to the foreign agent list, there was still no clear regulations in the law, like where you should put this label, how this should look like. And still there is no clear regulations for NGOs, but that doesn’t stop the courts from closing us down for violating the law.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe, Anna, police raids in your offices and of Memorial International, what that looks like?

ANNA DOBROVOLSKAYA: Yeah, we just had a police raid on our office this Friday, as far as we know. Unfortunately, all the people who were present there signed the NDA, the official NDA, and they cannot talk much about it. But as far as we got from the news and from the police officers, the search is related to a, again, anti-terrorism case against our former colleague, who is not even a colleague or a staff member anymore. He’s working with the Uzbek migrant communities, and he’s also working with some of the religious Muslim minorities in Russia. And some of those minority groups, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, are banned altogether. Though they have been quite peaceful, they are banned and are called extremists. And though he was no longer a colleague of ours, I think we all consider this as police just used this as an excuse to enter the premises and take the financial documentations, take the computers, take lots of stuff.

And it’s actually the second attempt of the police raid. The first one happened earlier last autumn, when we were showing the movie about the hunger in Ukraine, about the Holodomor. It was a Polish movie. We again had police raiding through our office. But that time, thanks to the brilliant legal work, we were able to stop them. Unfortunately, this time they just entered, and they were quite brutal. Well, no one was beaten up or anything, but no one was allowed. No lawyers were allowed allowed. And, of course, we consider all of this, again, as a violation of the law. Clearly, we will be opposing it, of course. But it looks like, yeah, the government is just trying to close everything down.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, and talking of closing everything down, the crackdown has come not just on NGOs but also on independent journalism. Could you talk about that, as well?

ANNA DOBROVOLSKAYA: Yes, the first — I think the first list of individuals, foreign agents, it was emerged in 2020 or 2019. And at the moment, there were, like, people, individuals, included to the list, and then the government started to include into this list a lot of independent media, a lot of those who were working with investigations, such as Panama Papers and very similar stories. So, majority of those media institutions had to close down. I think there were at least of 20 media foreign agents, at least 20, but I’m afraid there are more. And very often not just the media institution is being included to the list of foreign agents, but also the major journalists themselves or the major editors. And if you are the individual who is included to the foreign agent list — sorry for this. So, if you are in individual included to the foreign agent list, you have to, again, put this label on all your personal social media, and you have to be very precise with all your accounting and stuff like that.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, Anna, about the comparisons of what’s happening in Ukraine, Russia’s invasion, to what Russia did to Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, the leveling of a city, one of the most destroyed cities in the world. At that time, because Russia said it was going after Islamic extremists, much of the world did not rise up. But now they’re using the example, without talking about what the context was, to say, “Is this what they’re doing to Ukraine?” Can you talk about that comparison?


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to — go ahead.

ANNA DOBROVOLSKAYA: Yeah. Unfortunately, you yourself, Amy, you mentioned the law which kind of prohibits Russian citizens of talking very openly about what is happening in Ukraine. We’re supposed to call it “special military operations.” And that’s — a lot of, actually, media outlets had to close down because of that. From what we can see in international media or in Ukrainian sources, yes, it looks like a lot of tactics that were used in Chechnya are being used again in civilian objects or in cities in Ukraine. And it’s very, very unfortunate, what is happening there. And we can only hope that some negotiations or some — I don’t know, some peaceful minds can be able to stop it as soon as possible —

AMY GOODMAN: Finally —

ANNA DOBROVOLSKAYA: — because it’s a huge tragedy — yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: How much are you risking by speaking out right now from Moscow?

ANNA DOBROVOLSKAYA: If we stick to the words I just said, it’s — I think it’s OK. I think that people who go there to the streets holding the antiwar posters, they are risking way more, because it’s not just being held up in a cold police car. You can be beaten very brutally. You can be investigated very harshly. There is now a lot of people who are being also taken to the hospital after those raids by the police. And yeah, if you are detained for the second and third time, you are facing up to 15 years in prison. So I really admire those people who go in the streets. And unfortunately, not every one of us is able to take such risks, especially those people who are from the civil society, because we have to take care of a lot of things on the ground besides the peaceful protests. But we can only hope that, yes, it will be over soon.

AMY GOODMAN: Anna Dobrovolskaya, I want to thank you so much for being with us, executive director of the Memorial Human Rights Center, speaking to us from Moscow, Russia.

Next up, we turn to Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, the first African refugee to become a member of Congress. We’ll talk about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the plight of the more than 2 million refugees that have just fled Ukraine, and also refugees across the globe, as well as the recent U.S. bombing in her home country of Somalia. Stay with us.

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