‘Legal disgrace’: Russia shuts down its oldest human rights group

The decision is the latest in a series of legal rulings against organisations critical of the Russian government.

A Moscow court ordered the closure of Russia’s oldest human rights organisation, the Moscow Helsinki Group, silencing another respected institution as a political crackdown continues.

The judge with the Moscow City Court granted a justice ministry request to “dissolve” the rights group, the court announced in a statement on Wednesday.

The Moscow Helsinki Group said it would appeal the ruling.

The decision is the latest in a series of legal rulings against organisations critical of the Kremlin, a trend that intensified after President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine 11 months ago.

The Moscow Helsinki Group was created in 1976 to monitor Soviet authorities’ commitment to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms and was considered to be Russia’s oldest rights group.

But its members were jailed, harassed, and expelled from the country and the Moscow Helsinki Group had to suspend operations in 1982 under pressure from Soviet authorities.

Its work was re-established by former political prisoners and rights activists during the perestroika movement – a series of political and economic reforms – in 1989.

‘Regimes will change’

Roman Kiselyov, head of legal programmes at the Moscow Helsinki Group, said the organisation would continue its work, but it was unclear what form it would take.

“Human rights work and the movement will not end there,” Kiselyov said. “Decisions about the future will have to be made, that’s for sure.”

Genri Reznik, a lawyer who defended the organisation in court, called the justice ministry’s request to shut down the group a “legal disgrace”.

He expressed hope, however, that courts in Russia could review the case in the future.

“Life is long. People will go, regimes will change,” said Reznik.

Members of the Moscow Helsinki Group defending the organisation at the court
Members of the Moscow Helsinki Group defence team seen at court [Alexander Nemenov/AFP]

For two decades, the group was headed by Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a Soviet-era dissident who became a symbol of resistance in Russia and who died in 2018.

When Alexeyeva – the doyenne of Russia’s rights movement – celebrated her 90th birthday, Putin visited her at home, bringing her flowers.

“I am grateful to you for everything that you have done for a huge number of people in our country for many, many years,” Putin told her at the time.

‘Destruction of symbols’

The justice ministry had accused the rights group of breaching its legal status by carrying out activities such as observing trials outside Moscow.

Before Putin sent troops to Ukraine, Russia dissolved another pillar of the country’s rights movement, Memorial.

That group emerged as a symbol of hope during Russia’s chaotic transition to democracy in the early 1990s and was co-awarded the Nobel Peace Prize less than a year after it was ordered to shut down.

Pavel Chikov, a prominent lawyer and activist, said dissolution of top rights groups was equal to the “destruction” of Russia’s intellectual and cultural institutions and symbols of “peace, progress, and human rights”.

The Russian government has been using an array of laws to stifle critics, imposing prison terms of up to 15 years for spreading “false information” about the military, among other measures.

Russia’s top opposition politician Alexey Navalny is in jail and his political organisations have been declared “extremist”.

Most other key opposition figures are also either in prison or exiled.