Kremlin aims to close Memorial, ‘Russia’s conscience’

The Russian Justice Ministry has moved to dissolve one of Russia’s oldest human rights organizations, in a step that would silence a longtime Kremlin critic at a time of deepening conflict between Russia and the West, Michael Birnbaum reports for the Washington Post:

The suit filed against the Russian Memorial Society aims to shutter a venerable group that was founded in the waning years of the Soviet Union to document abuses committed against critics of the reigning Communist leadership. The group has pressed to open once-secret archives about political prisons and dissidents and to arrange for reparations and services for victims of political persecution.

russia memorial

Rights activist Oleg Orlov outside Memorial HQ.

“Russia has never recognized the crime of the Soviet regime, the crimes of the Stalin regime and the millions that died — there was no repentance,” said Lev Ponomarev, one of the founders of the organization. “The Memorial Society works so that a new authoritarian society will not appear. So the significance is huge.”

Over the years, Memorial has inspired thousands of students’ papers and collected witness testimonies about the history of repression, the dissident movement, and Gulag prisoners, Anna Nemtsova writes for the Daily Beast:

In Russia, which Freedom House rates as “Not Free,” organizations like Memorial are seen as unpatriotic, especially those supported by foreign grants. Memorial and other NGOs registered against their will as “foreign agents” in the past two years say they acted solemnly in the interests of all Russian citizens.

The role or mission Memorial plays in Russia might be seen as crucial, as it awakened the country’s historical memory, presenting history as an unbroken whole of the past, the present, and the future. But it is not the reality of history, it is the mythology that is being promoted under Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mikhail Fedotov, the head of Russia’s presidential Human Rights Council has said that there are “no grounds” for closing down Memorial.

Founded in 1989 under the auspices of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov, Memorial has led efforts to uncover communist-era repressions and fight discrimination in modern-day Russia, RFE/RL’s Daisy Sindelar notes, listing some of the group’s most vital achievements:

1. Exposing The Scope Of The Great Terror Memorial’s founding goal was to acknowledge, and document, the crimes of Soviet totalitarianism, which accounted for the deaths of an estimated 15 million-20 million people. Memorial began by erecting, in 1990, a monument dedicated to the victims of political repression. …. The group has helped countless Russians and others discover the fate of relatives who died or vanished under the communist regime, building over 20 years what is thought to be the country’s most comprehensive database of victims, with more than 2.65 million names. In 2008, police raided Memorial’s St. Petersburg office, confiscating the group’s entire digital archive. The database has been restored, part of the group’s exhaustive online resources.

estemirova2. Defending Defenders In The North Caucasus Memorial’s Human Rights Center, open since 1991, has been one of the leading rights watchdogs in the North Caucasus, opening an office in Grozny in 2000, when thousands of civilians were falling victim to kidnappings, torture, and so-called “sweeping-up” operations by both Russian federal forces and local militia groups. Memorial was forced to close its Grozny office after the 2009 slaying of activist and board member Natalya Estemirova (right), who was personally investigating “hundreds” of highly sensitive cases of kidnapping and murder. ……

3. Keeping The Past Alive It’s easy to say “Never forget.” Doing it is another matter. At a time when Stalin’s political legacy is gaining in popularity, Memorial has made public education a key aspect of its mission. In addition to sponsoring numerous films and documentaries highlighting totalitarian crimes, the group offers regular “terror tours” of Moscow’s Lubyanka district (above), reminding audiences of the brutal efficiency of the Soviet regime’s secret police and the continued failure of Vladimir Putin’s Russia to account for the repressions of the past. …. 

4. Fighting Xenophobia In 2003, Memorial announced the creation of an antidiscrimination center (ADC) aimed initially at promoting the rights of Russia’s Romany population. …. In a 2012 study submitted to the UN, the Petersburg-based center alleged that Roma and migrants were routinely subjected to police torture. Prosecutors used the report as a pretext to launch a suit against ADC Memorial the following year, when it became the first major Russian NGO to receive a liquidation order for failing to register as a foreign agent. …

5. Standing Up For Critics Throughout its existence, Memorial has provided legal and moral support to jailed government opponents in Russia and the post-Soviet neighborhood, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Aleksei Navalny, Belarus’s Ales Byalyatski, and Andrei Barabanov, Aleksei Gaskarov, and other participants in 2012′s Bolotnaya Square protests.

“We help people realize that Russia’s past and present are very much connected—that most probably explains why attacks on Memorial in the past few years grew so frequent and now remind us of a war,”  Human Rights Center Chairman Alexander Cherkasov told The Daily Beast.

Egypt stifling civil society, campus dissent

egypt fh infographic

Freedom House

Egyptian security forces are tightening their crackdown on student activism by arresting scores of students at the start of the school term in an effort to crush a renewed wave of protests against the military-backed government that took power last year, David D. Kirkpatrick reports for the New York Times:

At least 91 students have been arrested in Egypt since Friday, according to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, which has chapters on campuses across the country….. Universities are some of the last pockets of visible opposition to the military-backed government outside of the relatively lawless Sinai Peninsula, where militant Islamist groups are waging a campaign of guerrilla attacks against security forces.

The campus crackdown is part of a wider campaign to stifle civil society, observers suggest.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Cairo over the weekend, where he reportedly urged the government to relax curbs on civil society,  highlighting what he called ”the essential role of a vibrant civil society, a free press, due process under law.” “There’s no question that Egyptian society always has been stronger – and is stronger – when all of its citizens have a say and a stake in its success. And Egypt has long been a country with a strong civil society,” he stressed.  

An Egyptian paper released a report on “dangerous foreign donors,” criticizing many of Egypt’s most prominent human rights organizations, POMED reports:

The Atlantic Council released a report detailing Sisi’s tenure in power, highlighting a “resurgence in unchecked power, with torture and abuse in detention once again rampant.” Despite crackdowns, David Kirkpatrick wrote that Sisi enjoys considerable support from a cult of personality built around a network of allies far more extensive than that of former President Hosni Mubarak.

Hong Kong protests highlight China’s ideological conflict with West

CHINA HK CDTPro-Beijing mobs opposed to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrations attacked the protesters’ main camp on Monday, the New York Times reports:

For the Chinese government, wary of democratic demands from Hong Kong, a former British colony, the tensions have become entangled in ideological rivalry with the West. The main state-run news agency, Xinhua, has amplified accusations that the protests demanding sweeping electoral change were the handiwork of the United States government…. 

The Chinese Communist Party has said the unrest in Hong Kong has been fomented by foes of party rule, acting in concert with Western forces, especially the United States government, a claim that American government officials have adamantly rejected. On Monday, a video commentary issued by Xinhua continued those accusations, likening the unrest to “color revolutions” across former Soviet bloc countries that Chinese officials say were hatched by Washington.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying insisted on Sunday that protest leaders have “almost zero chance” of securing their demands because Beijing will not concede its framework for political reform. After protest numbers swelled over the weekend, new clashes erupted as pro-Beijing elements and police tried to dismantle barricades.

A Chinese state-run newspaper has blamed the United States for fomenting the pro-democracy protests – a claim strongly rejected by the State Department, the Guardian reports:

In a commentary published on the front page of the Communist Party-run People’s Daily’s overseas edition on Friday, the newspaper said the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a Washington-based nonprofit group, became involved in the Hong Kong protests as part of a US strategy to undermine foreign governments in the name of promoting democracy.

china hk march july 2014“What is happening there is about the people of Hong Kong, and any assertion otherwise is an attempt to distract from the issue at hand, which is the people expressing their desire for universal suffrage in an election that provides a meaningful choice of candidates representative of their own voters’ will,” said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf.

According to its annual reports, the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit directly supported by Washington, distributed $755,000 in grants in Hong Kong in 2012, and an additional $695,000 last year, to encourage the development of democratic institutions, the New York Times reports:

Some of that money was earmarked “to develop the capacity of citizens — particularly university students — to more effectively participate in the public debate on political reform.”

The reference to university students has drawn particular attention from China’s supporters, because student groups have been at the forefront of the protests. But Jane Riley Jacobsen, a spokeswoman for the N.E.D., said the group had not financed civil disobedience training for Hong Kong residents.

The commentary begins by noting that, “according to media reports,” Louisa Greve, the NED’s Vice President for Asia, Middle East & North Africa, and Global Programs, met with “key people” in Occupy Central “several months ago” to “talk about the movement,” The Diplomat reports:

The unidentified media reports the article references likely refers to an earlier report published in a “Hong Kong-based pro-Beijing newspaper,” according to the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post. The allegations themselves are most likely based on a NED-hosted public discussion on democracy in Hong Kong between Occupy Central leaders Martin Lee and Anson Chan that was held in Washington, DC in April of this year. Louisa Greve mediated the hour long talk, a video of which is available on YouTube…..

The reference to university students has drawn particular attention from China’s supporters, because student groups have been at the forefront of the protests. But Jane Riley Jacobsen, a spokeswoman for the N.E.D., said the group had not financed civil disobedience training for Hong Kong residents.

“‘Hostile forces’ is a time-honored term in the Chinese Communist Party lexicon,” explained David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project website, in an Oct. 10 analysis, Bloomberg reports. While the expression was first used in the Soviet Union under Stalin, “in China, it first appeared prominently in the People’s Daily in 1948, the same year the newspaper became the official propaganda organ of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party,” wrote Bandurski.

In a report from the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, U.S. lawmakers and administration officials called on Washington to become more vocal on Hong Kong, describing local democracy aspirations as an increasingly important human-rights issue, the WSJ reports.

“Members of Congress and the Administration should increase support for Hong Kong’s democracy through statements and meetings at the highest levels and visits to Hong Kong,” the report said.

Scholar who helped Chen Guangcheng escape detained


china guo yushanScholar Guo Yushan, who played an instrumental role in helping Chen Guangcheng escape his house arrest in 2012, has been detained, China Digital Times reports. The reason for his detention has been unclear, though he was earlier targeted when his Transition Institute was closed down, likely due to his association with rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong and the New Citizens Movement.

Recently, however, Guo had been keeping a low profile, according to his friends and associates. Josh Chin at the Wall Street Journal reports:

A dozen or so police and state security officers took Guo Yushan from his home in a Beijing suburb early Thursday morning, his wife Pan Haixia said Sunday. “They came in with a warrant and took a lot of things as evidence, his computer, his iPhone, iPad and some hard drives,” Ms. Pan said.

The detention notice later given to the family said that he had been detained on suspicion of “picking quarrels” — a crime used in the prosecution of dozens of activists in recent years, according to a copy of the notice his lawyers posted online Saturday. The lawyers said they submitted an application to the Beijing No. 1 Detention Center to meet with Mr. Guo, but had yet to get a response. [Source]

Andrew Jacobs at the New York Times reports on possible reasons for his detention:

Mr. Guo’s apparent crime, according to friends, was “picking quarrels and provoking troubles,” the catchall charge that the Chinese authorities have been using with growing frequency in an effort to silence perceived enemies.

It is not clear what prompted his detention, but Mr. Guo could simply be the latest victim of a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent that has picked up steam since pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong began a campaign of civil disobedience two weeks ago. …..

“If this is related to Occupy Central, there’s a big possibility he will lose his freedom,” said Li Fangping, a rights lawyer, referring to the protests in Hong Kong, which Chinese leaders fear could spread beyond the former British colony.


Read more about Guo Yushan, via China Digital Times.

Azerbaijan cracks down – while chairing Council of Europe


azerbalyeva“We are the last of the Mohicans,” says Leila Alieva (left).* “First the government weakened the opposition, then targeted independent media, and now us – the NGOs.”

Her research institute, the Centre for National and International Studies in Azerbaijan. is one of dozens of pro-democracy non-governmental organisations under investigation by the Azeri authorities, the BBC’s Rayhan Demytrie reports: 

And the crackdown is taking place as oil-rich Azerbaijan chairs Europe’s leading pro-democracy institution, the Council of Europe. In most cases the authorities have frozen bank accounts or launched tax inspections, forcing NGOs that received foreign grants to suspend projects.

Other organisations include Transparency International, Irex, National Endowment for Democracy and Oxfam.

Draft amendments to limit funding of independent groups under Azerbaijan’s already harsh laws would make it nearly impossible for them to operate, Human Rights Watch said today:

These moves come as a prominent international coalition, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), is to decide at a board meeting in Naypyidaw, Burma on October 14 and 15, 2014, what action to take on Azerbaijan’s membership in response to its intensifying crackdown. EITI is an international coalition to encourage better governance of resource-rich countries by fostering open public debate about how oil, gas, and mining revenues are used. EITI rules for candidates and participating countries require respect for fundamental freedoms…. For the past year the government of oil-rich Azerbaijan has been impeding the activities of independent groups, flouting its commitments as an EITI member.

“EITI’s leadership should suspend Azerbaijan and make clear what needs to change before it will consider lifting the suspension,” said Lisa Misol, senior business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Azerbaijani government’s latest move to crush independent groups confirms that it has no regard for its human rights obligations or its international transparency commitments.”



Two prominent human rights activists, Leyla Yunus (right) and Rasul Jafarov, were arrested in late July after they compiled a list of Azerbaijan’s political prisoners.

 Human Rights Watch described the charges as “completely bogus”.

“These are the towering figures of civil society, who we felt were more or less untouchable. But apparently no-one is untouchable in Azerbaijan. At this stage all critical civil society is pretty much exterminated,” says Georgi Gogia, the group’s senior researcher in the Caucasus.

With Azerbaijan chairing the Council of Europe, questions have been raised about its ability to respect the 47-nation organisation’s founding principles, the BBC’s Demytrie adds.

“It’s shocking that the chairman is basically a dictatorship using its chairmanship period this summer to arrest literally every three days all the critical minds that defend the very value of the institution,” says Gerald Knauss, who heads the Berlin-based European Stability Initiative (ESI).

*A former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.