On December 29, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was asked to comment on the closure of Memorial, one of Russia’s oldest human rights groups, known mostly for compiling lists of victims of political repression in the Soviet Union.
The previous day, Russia’s Supreme Court had ordered the organization to shut down, allegedly for violating Russia’s “foreign agents” law.
Peskov declined to comment, stating: "These are court decisions. We never comment on court decisions.”
That is both evasive and false.
In fact, there are many examples of the Kremlin commenting on court cases. Perhaps most famous was Vladimir Putin’s response in 2010 to a question about the jailing of Russian businessman and oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Moreover, Putin commented on the case against Memorial as recently as December 9, when he claimed that the organization’s lists of victims of Stalin-era political repression included individuals who had worked for the police under the Nazis, and who had arrested Jews and sent Jewish prisoners to their place of execution.
A day before Peskov’s no comment, prosecutor Alexei Zhafyarov echoed Putin’s comments about Memorial, claiming before the Supreme Court that Memorial ‘s lists of victims of Stalinist repression also contained "Nazi offenders with [the] blood of Soviet citizens on their hands."
"It is obvious that Memorial creates a false image of the USSR as a terrorist state by speculating on the topic of political repression of the 20th century," Zhafyarov said during the December 28 hearing, German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported.
Memorial says its lists of victims of Stalin-era repression are based on the official state records of people who were rehabilitated by the Soviet authorities.
Memorial was charged with violating Russia’s so-called “foreign agents” law after the organization was officially designated as a foreign agent in 2016.
This past November, a Memorial representative claimed it had already paid all the fines levied against it for allegedly violating the foreign agents law. Prosecutors allege that Memorial failed to properly label its published materials as produced by a designated foreign agent, as the law requires.
Based on the Supreme Court verdict, Memorial will have to shut down unless it wins an appeal. The court’s decision drew criticism from a number of countries and organizations, including the United Nations human rights office and the European Court of Human Rights.
Russia’s foreign agents law was introduced in 2012 and was originally aimed at noncommercial organizations receiving funding from abroad that engaged in “political activity.” Critics have often pointed out how vague the criteria are for what constitutes political activity.
For example, in 2015 Russia’s Dynasty Foundation, which was primarily involved in funding scientific research, fell afoul of the law and was forced to shut down. (Peskov commented on that court case at the time.)
In more recent years, the foreign agent law has been modified and applied more liberally, affecting news organizations, individual journalists, YouTubers, and activists. Once designated a foreign agent, an individual or organization must place a disclaimer on all published content, as well as provide financial records to the government. Failure to comply can lead to steep fines.
In 2017, Russia placed the U.S. Congress-funded media outlets Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Current Time TV on the list of foreign agents. Current Time is a Russian-language collaboration produced by RFE/RL and Voice of America, whose Russian-language news service was also designated a foreign agent.
More than $4 million in fines have piled up against RFE/RL, which disputes the foreign agent label and filed a legal challenge in the European Court of Human Rights.