5 April 2022
by Aleksandr Cherkasov, chair of the board of Memorial Human Rights Centre, laureate of a Moscow Helsinki Group human rights award
This hearing is the last in a series of court hearings on the shutting down of the Memorial organisations and it is possible to talk about the outcome. I have no illusions, neither do our representatives. Although we cannot be liquidated under any circumstances, we most definitely will be liquidated. All of us present know how this court hearing will end! Does any of this make sense at all, then?
What we have been doing here and what we have been saying – none of this has been futile. Right up to this very hour and these present minutes.
I mean this whole judicial process. In which, of course, there have been a lot of funny things concerning those [foreign agent] ‘markings’. Or the fact that a respected representative of the prosecutor’s office has not learned exactly what our organization is called, even though he has been trying to liquidate us for six months.
And after all, there have been some important things in this trial as well.
Take for example the very ‘expertise’ [presented by Kriukova and of Tarasov] which the Moscow City Prosecutor’s Office submitted to the Moscow City Court. Expertise which, during the course of these hearings, our lawyers simply blew to bits, and completely rubbished. This ‘expertise’ was used in an attempt to accuse us of ‘justifying extremism and terrorism.’
Analysis of this evidence, as carried out by genuine acknowledged experts in these fields, linguists and psychologists, was very useful. It was useful in showing up the shameful phenomenon of the Russian judicial and investigative system of ‘experts on call’. Experts who substitute themselves for evidence, witnesses, and expertise, who at these ‘sessions in cutting and stitching’ are able to stitch any prosecution together.
In this respect, our trial has proved very useful.
Or the hearing of 22 March in the Supreme Court, where we also tried to ensure compliance with the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights on interim measures [under Rule 39] against International Memorial. The decision of the Supreme Court, which also refused [to apply this rule] to postpone the liquidation of International Memorial, is simply amazing!
Because they wrote there, or better invented – just as Tynyanov invented the fictional Lieutenant Kizhe! [a fictional character in a 1928 satire on bureaucracy – trans.) – the case of Lodged against Turkey [‘Lodged protiv Turtsii’ (Лодгед против Турции)] showing that the Supreme Court of Russia not only does not understand the documents that come out of Strasbourg, but does not even understand the words in which these documents are written.
And that’s very important for understanding the state of our current justice system. So it’s been a very useful trial. And what is being said here today is also very important.
Maybe we’re to blame in some way? As it turns out, we are.
Thirty years ago, when we were still beginning our work, we believed Russia was heading towards democracy, towards a rule-of-law state. We didn’t make it clear enough to our fellow Russians that the fight for rights and freedoms wasn’t a one-off thing. It’s just like bread: you need to bake it fresh every day.
We didn’t manage to get it through to our fellow citizens that this illusion of grandeur and a return to former glory, in actual fact, won’t lead to any kind of glory or grandeur at all. What it will do is to turn this country into some mouldy reservation for our oh so provincial ‘traditions’. It won’t put Russia on its feet. It will bring the country to its knees.
That we’ve underperformed in this area is true. But I’m afraid that’s not what we are on trial for in this courtroom. And this is not what we are going to be condemned for.
I and the honourable lawyers have already mentioned that the claims made about the ‘foreign agent markings’ on Memorial’s materials are a mere formality.
The actual reason for which we are being liquidated sadly only became clear to us during the trial.
The main thing with which Memorial Human Rights Centre has occupied itself from the start has been the fight against gross and large-scale violations of human rights in warzones. We have helped people who have been victims of human rights abuses in warzones in a huge variety of ways. We help the victims of war crimes themselves, refugees, victims of ethnic discrimination, and others, and we have been doing this for thirty years.
We’ve been combating impunity for war crimes and crimes against humanity. At the present, our work is in great demand, and this is precisely why Memorial is facing liquidation.
Mr. Grigory Vaypan has reminded everyone of the massacre, orchestrated by Russian security forces in Novye Aldi, after which Memorial set to work gathering evidence and pursuing justice. That is where, in 2000, fifty or so people were murdered, a crime which to this day has gone unpunished. But then again, five years prior to this, Memorial was also investigating the aftermath of what happened in the village of Samashki. There, in 1995, over a hundred civilians were murdered, yet another crime which also went unpunished.
This was impunity. And organised impunity at that. There has been a whole chain of cases of organised impunity which has led us to our present, lamentable situation. A situation for which we all – every one of us! – will have to bear responsibility.
I don’t want it to seem as if we’ve been doing nothing at all recently except defending ourselves. Thank God, that’s not the case. For all that the prosecutor’s office has forced us to put a lot of effort into our own court cases, protecting our right to exist, we have continued to help people, and not just the victims of conflicts.
For example, very recently in Moscow City Court residents of the Dagestan village of Irganai were celebrating because after a decade of taking their cases to various official bodies where they met with refusals, the state will finally pay them compensation. For what? For the fact that their village was flooded when the Irganai reservoir was filled up. For the fact that people had to leave their homes, waist-deep in water at night, to save themselves. And the state did nothing all these years to restore justice. Memorial’s lawyers did it for them!
This case wasn’t about armed conflicts, but cases like that have also been an important part of our work for the last 30 years.
But these are not the only cases we’ve had in recent weeks. One of the latest cases we have been working on has been the ‘Syrian’ case  in which we have now exhausted all domestic courts in our search to defend human rights. No one else has taken up this kind of case! Probably everyone has seen the footage – which is not banned, unlike the current footage from Ukraine. It shows people in camouflage, speaking Russian, striking a man with a sledgehammer. They dismember him. Cut off his head. They burn the body. They are speaking Russian at the same time. They don’t hide their faces. But the prosecutor’s office has done nothing to investigate this video. Together with our colleagues from human rights organizations in Syria and France, and from Novaya gazeta, along with our heroic lawyers, we filed a complaint with the Chief Directorate of the Investigative Committee on behalf of the brother of the deceased. For six months our military justice system just hid, pretending that they hadn’t received any complaint from us. Then we applied to the courts. First to the district Basmanny court, then to Moscow city court. There we were also predictably refused. This obvious crime was not a crime for the courts!
It would seem that once again we had taken up a hopeless case – but at least we tried.
‘At least we tried,’ is probably a futile summation of these years.
You’re going to shut us down now.
But for some reason it is not very upsetting.
You see, the cause of human rights has always found people who will take up the cause. In the most varied and difficult circumstances. After all, the Russian liberation movement is over two hundred years old.
And it’s not that we were very scared. Although it is a shame that you and we – all of us! – lose decades of our lives, caught up in these unlearned lessons of history. Bloody lessons of history. Lessons that we shall all be held to answer for. All of us.
But I repeat: none of this has been, or is, futile. Right up to this very day and hour, right up to your judgment.