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Russian officials move closer to shutting down a major human rights group

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Russia, prosecutors are seeking a court order to shut down that country's oldest human rights group. They're using a law restricting the activities of so-called foreign agents. It's the latest attempt by the Kremlin to shut down potential sources of opposition to President Vladimir Putin. NPR's Charles Maynes joins us now from Moscow. Charles, thanks for being here. Tell us more about this human rights group and the charges that it's facing.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Yeah, sure. The group is called Memorial or as Russians say (speaking Russian). It came out of the push for new freedoms in the late Soviet era and is seen as really a foundational brick in post-Soviet Russian civil society. It's essentially an umbrella organization with two main branches in its work, one preserving the historical memory of those caught up in the mass repressions of the Soviet Union and another documenting modern Russia's human rights abuses.

Now, Memorial is right now facing two charges. Prosecutors say the group has violated the terms of a foreign agent law for accepting foreign funding. Meanwhile, a separate case accuses Memorial's human rights wing of promoting extremism by raising awareness about political prisoners in Russia today. Memorial disagrees with both but says it's trying to abide by the foreign agent law, even paying earlier court-ordered fines thanks to public donations. The problem here is the law is so opaque that prosecutors constantly dig up new violations, and they're saying - asking the courts to liquidate Memorial entirely because of them.

MARTIN: And this isn't the first time this accusation of being a foreign agent has been used by the state, right?

MAYNES: You know, it's not. Memorial's just the latest victim in a way. It's a number of organizations and individuals have been designated foreign agents by the state in recent years. The result is that you've had organizations declared illegal, outlets shut down and even people, individuals, forced to identify themselves as foreign agents every time they, say, you know, post on social media or face fines and possibly go to prison for that. The authorities argue Russia is simply copying an American foreign agents law. But, you know, there's no question they've applied it in such a broad way that it's being used to clamp down on inconvenient voices like Memorial.

MARTIN: Right. Is the Kremlin talking about this case at all?

MAYNES: Well, the Kremlin spokesman says they expect Memorial to follow the law and that it's up to the courts to decide. But this pressure on Memorial is widely seen as political. If you, you know, just step back for a moment, Putin's Russia tries to tell a story of a country really cloaked in triumph, none more so than the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. And, you know, Memorial serves as, you know, this constant reminder of the darker chapters of the Soviet period, including the fate of some 20 million people who were arrested and murdered by their own government.

MAYNES: You know, I spoke with Andrei Kolesnikov of the Moscow Carnegie Center who told me that, in this way, Memorial undermines the core mythology of the Putin regime.

ANDREI KOLESNIKOV: The legitimacy of this regime is founded on the past, only on the basis of former achievements, achievements of the Soviet Union. And Memorial is spoiling this simple and understandable nostalgia which Putin creates.

MARTIN: I mean, based on that, I have to admit I'm sort of surprised that this organization has been allowed to operate at all considering the potential threat it poses to the Putin regime. I mean, at this point, how do these court cases, how do they move through the system?

MAYNES: Yeah, I think you're right. It signals the kind of shifting political terrain here, but these two cases are moving forward. Thursday is a hearing into the foreign agents violations. The extremism case was pushed back to next week. And Memorial is rallying its supporters, including a former Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, in an effort to get the state to drop both cases. But what happens if Memorial loses? Well, you know, President Putin doesn't deny the Soviet repressions ever happened, but it certainly would signal a watershed moment in efforts to control who tells the story of Russia's past and, just as importantly, how it's told.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow, thank you for this. We appreciate it.

MAYNES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECONDITE'S "HARBINGER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.