The following is based on a communication written by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and other UN experts to the Government of the Russian Federation on 17 May 2023. The communication remained confidential for 60 days before being made public, giving the Government time to reply. Regrettably, the Government did not reply within this time frame. If a reply is received it will be posted on the UN Special Procedures communications database.
This is a shorter version of the original communication.
Topics: the alleged search of the homes of members of the Russian NGO “Memorial” as well as their offices, and the criminalization of Oleg Orlov in connection with his legitimate human rights work, the exercise of his freedom of expression and freedom of association.
International Memorial was a non-governmental organisation dedicated to investigating political repression in the former Soviet Republics and to promoting the moral and legal rehabilitation of persons subjected to political repression. International Memorial was founded in 1991 in Moscow. Its predecessor, the Moscow Initiative Group Memorial, was established in 1987 and gave rise to a number of regional organisations and groups. In 1989 they were united under the aegis of the All-Union Voluntary History and Education Society Memorial (registered in 1990). International Memorial’s activities were aimed at supporting civil society, democracy and the rule of law to prevent a return to totalitarianism; popularisation of democratic values in society; and the strengthening of human rights in public and political life. International Memorial was forcibly dissolved by the judgment of the Supreme Court of Russia on 28 December 2021.
Moscow Memorial is a regional non-governmental organisation working on similar issues. It used to be a member organisation of International Memorial.
Memorial Human Rights Defence Centre is a non-registered non-governmental organisation founded in June 2022 by supporters of Memorial Human Rights Centre to continue the work of the latter NGO. Memorial Human Rights Centre was founded in 1993 in Moscow and became one of the first human rights NGOs in modern Russia. It worked in areas of civil strife that may or have already escalated into armed conflict, as well as in post-conflict situations, investigating whether human rights and international humanitarian law are respected. The organisation represented hundreds of victims of human rights violations both domestically and before the European Court of Human Rights; provided free legal assistance to refugees and migrants; and compiled and maintained a list of political prisoners based on the definition endorsed by the PACE resolution 1900 (2012).
List of members of International Memorial and Memorial Human Rights Defence Centre affected by the raids:
- Yan Rachinsky, the chairman of the Board of the dissolved International Memorial;
- Oleg Orlov, co-chairman of Memorial Human Rights Defence Center and Board member of the dissolved International Memorial;
- Alexandra Polivanova, Board member of the dissolved International Memorial;
- The mother of Alexandra Polivanova;
- Nikita Petrov, Board member of the dissolved International Memorial;
- Galina Iordanskaya, Alena Kozlova, Irina Ostrovskaya, Alexander Guryanov, staff members of the dissolved International Memorial.
On 21 March 2023, the Investigative Committee of Russia conducted searches of the homes of former staff and Board members of International Memorial. The searches were carried out in a total of 9 apartments, as well as in the office of Moscow Memorial and the former office of International Memorial.
According to the search warrants, criminal proceedings for “Rehabilitation of Nazism” were initiated against “unidentified staff members” of International Memorial on 3 March 2023.
Despite the searches being carried out 19 days after the case was opened, the Investigative Committee deemed them urgent and, thus, not requiring prior judicial authorisation. No justification for the urgency was provided.
Most of those whose homes were searched were not allowed to have their lawyers present despite their lawyers being present outside, at their address. Some of those who requested a written record of the search and the property seized, were refused. During the search of Moscow Memorial’s office, the request of Memorial’s lawyer to be present during the search was refused. No record of the property seized was provided either.
Electronic devices, as well as documents relating to International Memorial’s activities and items bearing Memorial’s logo were seized during the searches. Several dozen boxes containing documents were taken away from the premises of Moscow Memorial.
Following the searches of the apartments, six of the former staff and Board members of International Memorial, were taken to the Tverskoy police station and later to the Tverskoy department of the Investigative Committee and questioned as witnesses in the “Rehabilitation of Nazism” case. Five of them were later released without charges.
B. “Rehabilitation of Nazism” charges
The charges of “Rehabilitation of Nazism”, according to the investigators, are based on the inclusion by Memorial of the names of three WWII alleged Nazi collaborators in the Memorial “Victims of Political Terror” database, with the intention to “absolve the crimes” of Nazism.
Memorial’s database of “Victims of Political Terror” contains more than 3 000 000 names. The cases contained in the database are largely based on information taken from so-called “Memory books” compiled in cities and regions on the basis of the 1991 Law on rehabilitation of victims of political repressions.
Two of the names cited in the investigation were included in Memorial’s database because they appeared in a Memory book published in the Russian Republic of Tatarstan in 2001. This Memory book was prepared and approved by the authorities of Tatarstan. Later, the prosecutor’s office refused to clear the criminal records of the two cited individuals after the book was compiled. However, their case files are still not accessible, so the nature of charges against them remains unknown.
The third individual cited in the investigation was an ethnic German who had been deported from the Odessa region during the series of ethnic deportations and the deportations of the people who were “suspected collaborators” during the Nazi occupation. He was included in lists of victims of repression on the basis of his deportation. In 1954 the same person was convicted of Nazi collaborationism during the occupation. Memorial did not include this person in the database nor attempt to absolve those later charges.
C. Charges against Oleg Orlov
The home of Oleg Orlov was searched the same day as the others under the search warrant citing the “Rehabilitation of Nazism” charges.
After questioning, Orlov was charged with the criminal offence of “repeatedly discrediting the Russian Armed forces”. Orlov had twice previously been charged and found guilty under administrative law for “discrediting the Russian Armed forces” for staging his anti-war pickets. The criminal charges were based on Orlov’s Facebook post containing his article “They wanted fascism. They got it”. Orlov was released under the condition that he would not leave Moscow.
In the communication, we express concern about the searches carried out in the homes of staff and Board members of International Memorial, as well as in the office of Moscow Memorial and the former office of International Memorial. These searches have been carried out without prior judicial authorization and without the presence of lawyers. Additionally, we also wish to express concern as to the criminalisation of Mr. Oleg Orlov, which appears to be related to his legitimate human rights work and the exercise of the freedoms of expression and of association.
Finally, we also express our grave concerns regarding the use of broad and vaguely formulated legislative provisions, such as article 354.1(2)b of the Russian Criminal Code (“Rehabilitation of Nazism”) and article 280.3(1) of the Russian Criminal Code (“Repeatedly Discrediting the Russian Armed forces”), carrying imprisonment sentences, to restrict freedom of expression, in violation of the principle of legal certainty under international law. We remain concerned at the serious chilling effect it may have on human rights defenders and on fundamental freedoms, notably the freedom of expression, and the freedoms of assembly and of association, and the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, including research and publications on the history of human rights situations and violations, as guaranteed under international human rights law.