Eva Merkacheva: A court has abolished the Moscow Helsinki Group – the trial will go down in history

25 January 2023

by Eva Merkacheva, journalist, rights activist, recipient of a Moscow Helsinki Group prize 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: МК]

On Wednesday [25 January] in a case brought by the Justice Ministry, the Moscow City Court dissolved the Moscow Helsinki Group, one of the oldest human rights organisations in the country (it was set up in 1976 in the framework of the Helsinki Accords on compliance with human rights in the Soviet Union).

This legal process will undoubtedly go down in history (to be more precise, it already has). It was not just sensational, it was a society trial. Famous people, including journalists, rights activists, historians and political scientists appeared as witnesses. True, most of them never took the floor but even so the courtroom heard impassioned speeches of the kind that will one day appear in the text books. As will the names of the prosecuting lawyers and the judge. 

At ten in the morning, hundreds of people arrived at the Moscow City Court, for whom the abolition of the MHG was a sort of end point, at which another accounting period began. Among them were former and current members of the president’s human rights council (as it happens many off them are still MHG members as well, which attests to the two organisations’ initially similar remits). But hardly any of them was able to go inside – the courtroom was packed with law students. All those who really wanted to support the MHG remained in the room with a television and were obliged to watch the proceedings on the screen. 

“In order to ensure the openness and public nature of the trial, we request that the court sit in another room. The lawsuit doesn’t seek to abolish some fanciful limited liability company but a symbol of the age,” declared the lawyer, Agaltsova. Judge Mikhail Kazakov denied her request as not being possible, and then declined to question the witnesses and experts who included Svetlana Makovetskaya, the country’s leading specialist on civil society and member of the human rights council. She intended to prove literally in laymen’s terms that abolishing the MHG in this fashion, without prior warning and on negligible grounds, meant the closure of all NGOs throughout the country. But she wasn’t given the floor. She wasn’t allowed into the courtroom…

The prosecution stated that the Prosecutor’s Office had discovered that the work of the MHG was breaking the law by taking place outside Moscow. Justice Ministry representative Ivan Tatarnikov maintained that these offences were “gross and incurable”. He specified that the MHG had held eleven events outside Moscow and had lodged complaints with the authorities in other members of the federation. The MHG’s lawyers wondered whether, according to this logic, it was the case that the Moscow organisation was not allowed to have a website that was also accessible from other regions and that all NGO members had to have Moscow residency. The prosecutor faltered.

The MHG representatives wanted to talk about the activities of the organisation, its contribution to creating a human rights movement in the country. But the entire Justice Ministry, speaking through its staff, replied that this was of no consequence. 

“How can that be?” asked the MHG members, astonished. “Our activity has been recognised by the state as vital and important. It marked the start of the development of a human rights movement in Russia. And what’s more, support for it was guaranteed at the presidential level.” 

Mind you, that was in the 21st century. While before that…

Lawyer Mikhail Biryukov recalled an incident, despite an objection from the prosecution. He took out … a memo from First Deputy Chairman of the USSR KGB Semyon Tsvigun that spoke of members of the MHG “disguising themselves as rights activists”. It had been the pretext for crackdowns on activists and a halt in their activities.

“But Tsvigun did not enjoy the group’s closure for long,” Biryukov noted. “He killed himself in 1982 and nine years later the KGB was dissolved.”

“Irrelevant!” the prosecutors objected.

MHG members told the court that they had never concealed the fact that they operated throughout the country and reached out to all bodies of authority. Moreover, this was established as a founding principle of the MHG’s work way back in 1976. And there had been no objections from the authorities. So what was going on now?

Legendary lawyer Genri Reznik, who was the last to take the floor, had an answer:

“In the turbulent situation caused by the stand-off with the West and armed conflict with another country, the first disciples are eager to prove their loyal service. Other qualities, another atmosphere prevail today. The law is in danger. I am assuming that no given judge, examining any case, would want to have anything on his conscience. I am asking you to leave the Justice Ministry staff alone with this disgrace! Dismiss this absolutely unfounded lawsuit that has nothing to do with the law.”

Several other remarks during the session:

“You are committing a grave sin!”

“Abolishing the MHG is a serious blow to the human rights movement not just in Russia but throughout the world.” 

“How can something that took decades to build be destroyed so lightly? It demanded vast efforts, casualties, human lives. People died in the camps!”

The judge withdrew to the deliberations room for 20 minutes and then read out the brief verdict: found for the plaintiff.

Translated by Melanie Moore

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