Why has Komi Memorial Human Rights Commission decided to close down?

posted 30 Oct 2015, 15:29 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 30 Oct 2015, 15:42 ]
23 October 2015

Source: HRO.org (info)
Head of Komi Memorial Human Rights Commission, Igor Sazhin, has said that human rights activists in Komi believe it better to close their organization than be labelled a so-called ‘foreign agent’.

As Sergei Sorokin, a correspondent for Radio Svoboda, reports, on Thursday evening the members of Komi Memorial Human Rights Commission decided to close the NGO. The human rights defenders were forced to take this step after their challenge to their inclusion in the ‘foreign agent’ register in the courts failed.

In 2013 Komi Memorial Human Rights Commission successfully passed the first inspection concerning whether it received foreign funding and engaged in politics. At that time experts from the regional office of the Justice Ministry concluded that the NGO was not engaged in political activity and therefore did not fall under the law on ‘foreign agents’. Nonetheless, the results of the inspection were not especially encouraging for the members of the NGO, and Igor Sazhin, chair of the board, foretold that provocations against the human rights organization would continue.

Sazhin’s conviction that events would take a turn for the worse is explained by the policy adopted by the team surrounding the Komi governor, Vyacheslav Gaizer (at present charged with organizing a criminal gang and other crimes), whose goal was to clear the region of any civil society activity that had not been approved by the authorities.

And that is how it turned out. In December last year the regional FSB initiated an assessment of a number of materials posted on the Internet journal "7х7. News, Opinions, Blogs", in the founding and funding of which Komi Memorial Human Rights Commission took part. Yury Shabaev, who acted as an expert in the case, is a staff member of the Institute of Language, Literature and History of Komi at a research centre of the Urals division of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Shabaev evaluated the publications for evidence as to whether they formed public opinion in such a way as to put in doubt the legitimacy of decisions taken by the authorities, or diminish the authority and otherwise discredit government institutions. He found two pieces of evidence of alleged ‘politics’. One was a publication containing a quotation by journalists from a resolution adopted at a rally by Syktyvkar communists (‘the government of Russia and of Komi demonstrates unprofessionalism and a complete inability to carry out constructive work’). And the second piece of evidence was a photograph illustrating a political poster with the words ‘Putin is a Thief’ put up next to the building of the court in Kirov during the trial of Aleksei Navalny.

On the basis of the expert's conclusions, the Ministry of Justice again conducted an inspection of the most authoritative human rights organization in Komi. This time the Ministry ruled that the NGO was engaged in ‘politics’. Komi Memorial Human Rights Commission was told to register as a ‘foreign agent’. When the NGO refused to do this, the Ministry went to court, and the court fined the NGO 300,000 roubles.

Attempts by Komi Memorial Human Rights Commission to contest the decision of the Ministry of Justice came to nothing, despite the fact that the NGO at the time of publication of the ‘discrediting’ materials had refused to accept foreign funding, had left the board of "7х7" and had no influence on its publication policy.

At a meeting of the general assembly of Komi Memorial Human Rights Centre on 22 October 2015, a majority voted in favour of closing down the organization, which had been created 18 years before. The main reason for closure was stated in the minutes of the meeting as the fact that it was impossible for members of the NGO to voluntarily accept the humiliating label of ‘foreign agent’, a label which also fails to correspond with reality.

Human rights defender Igor Sazhin wrote in his LiveJournal blog: "[…] NGOs were open for everyone, including officials. They introduced the law on ‘foreign agents’, and now many NGOs have preferred to close down. True, they won’t have any money, but they will in any case continue their work and nothing will be known about them. This will become the most closed sphere of activity. The officials have blinded themselves. [...]"

Translated by Simon Cosgrove