Russia Update: Human Rights Group Faces Trial Over Failure to Label Lecturers as ‘Foreign Agents’

September 2, 2015

Memorial Human Rights Center, Russia’s leading human rights advocate, will be facing trial this Friday, September 4 related to their determination as a “foreign agent” under a law passed by President Vladimir Putin last year.

Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.

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Memorial Human Rights Center to Face Trial Over Failure to Label Public Lecturers as ‘Foreign Agents’

Memorial Human Rights Center, Russia’s leading human rights advocate, will be facing trial this Friday, September 4 regarding their determination as a “foreign agent” under a law passed by President Vladimir Putin last year. Groups deemed to be engaged in unspecified “political activity” that receive grants from abroad must register as “foreign agents” and face more scrutiny, or pay a heavy fine.

According to a press release on Memorial’s web site, the organization was designated on June 30 as a “foreign agent” and received a warning from the Ministry of Justice that they had not placed a notice on all their literature explaining that they are a “foreign agent.”  As we reported last year, the group had long attempted to fend off the stigma of the “foreign agent” label through court appeals, but lost its last case.

In fact, the Ministry’s warning concerned International Memorial, which is registered as a separate organization with separate legal status than the Memorial Human Rights Center; it was the Human Rights Center and not the International Memorial that was declared a foreign agent in the past.

In particular, the Ministry singled out two items, a notice of a public lecture given by mathematician and IT engineer Kirill Velikanov about whether an Internet parliament was possible and another lecture by German historian Alexander von Plato on June 4, “How World War II is Remembered in Germany Since 1945.” Von Plato had also worked with Memorial on a study of the history of the NKVD’s labor camps in Germany and interviews with 600 former forced laborers in Germany.

The lecture by Velikanov was attended in person by about a dozen people and livestreamed so that others could participate, then uploaded to YouTube where it has received 138 views to date; another copy had 21 views.

Russian officials objected to the fact that the notices for these meetings didn’t have the stamp “foreign agent” on them.

Aleksandr Cherkasov, chair of the Memorial Human Rights Center, said
that it was one thing for officials to put the designation on Memorial
of “foreign agent”; it was another to require Memorial to place this
designation on others, as the lecturers were not members of Memorial but
guest speakers.

Furthermore, the organizations were legally
separate, explained Cherkasov, and the Human Rights Center was not
involved in the two lectures.

Memorial’s lawyer Kirill Koroteyev filed a complaint against a
subsequent warning from Roskomnadzor, the state censor, about the
failure to put the “foreign
agent” designation on lecture notices, but a protocol on administrative
charges was nonetheless drafted by the Justice Ministry.

Justice Ministry officials then responded to the appeal by saying
that while legally separate organizations, the two organizations were
essentially the same thing, so that if one was branded a “foreign agent”
it had to police the other’s content and visiting lectures. 

date, the Justice Ministry has placed 85 Russian organizations in its
registry of “foreign agents.” Some of the groups have been forced to
close and others have paid heavy fines for refusing to register
themselves, in which case the Ministry registers them anyway. Now it is
clear the authorities will go further than just fines, but attempt to
find other ways in which undesirable groups are not complying with the
law, and drag them into court for further punishment.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick