Russia's Top Court Upholds Decision To Shut Down Memorial Rights Group

MOSCOW -- Russia's Supreme Court has upheld its previous decision to shut down one of the country's most venerated human rights groups, International Memorial, amid a continued crackdown on civil society in the country.

The Supreme Court announced its decision on February 28 following a hearing by its three judges who refused to allow defense witnesses to testify.

Supporters of International Memorial were barred from the courtroom in Moscow.

The court rejected an appeal filed by International Memorial's lawyers based on a request by the European Court of Human Rights to suspend the decision until another case brought by Russian NGOs, including Memorial International, challenging the legality of Russia's controversial "foreign agents" legislation was heard.

In December, the Supreme Court ruled that Memorial International, a stand-alone group and the umbrella organization for many regional branches and the Memorial Human Rights Center, should be liquidated for violating the "foreign agents" law.

Also in December, in a separate hearing, the Moscow City Court ordered the closure of the Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center on the same charge.

The "foreign agent" law has been increasingly used by officials to shutter civil society and media groups in Russia.

Rights activists have said there are no legal grounds to liquidate either of the organizations, which have been devoted since the late 1980s to researching and memorializing the crimes of the Soviet Union, as well as to promoting human rights in Russia and former Soviet republics.

They say the Prosecutor-General's Office's demand to shut down Memorial is "a politically motivated decision."

The original 2012 legislation, which targeted NGOs and rights groups, has since been expanded to target media organizations, individual journalists, YouTube vloggers, and pretty much anyone who receives money from outside of Russia and, in the eyes of the Kremlin, voices a political opinion.

RFE/RL has 18 Russian-national journalists on the government's "foreign agents" list and faces over $13 million in assessed fines. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland accused Russia on March 8 of seeking to reap extra benefits from its participation in the effort to restore the nuclear agreement, but she said Washington would not be playing "Let's Make a Deal."

The Western diplomat said it was still not clear what the exact nature of Moscow's demands were, but they appeared broader than its nuclear commitments to revive the deal.

A European diplomat said Russia was demanding sweeping guarantees on trade between Moscow and Tehran.

They said the talks were now not likely to end this week.

Mora broke off informal meetings on March 7 saying the time had come for political decisions to be taken to end the negotiations.

European negotiators from France, Britain, and Germany had already temporarily left the talks as they believed they had gone as far as they could go and it was now up to the United States and Iran to agree on outstanding issues.

Iran's chief negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, returned to Tehran unexpectedly after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov outlined Moscow's new demands. Iran's foreign minister said at the time that Tehran would not let its interests be harmed by "foreign elements.”

With reporting by AFP, AP, and Reuters