The Moscow city court’s decision to liquidate the Moscow Helsinki Group, the oldest and most reputable human rights group in Russia, founded in 1976, is yet another worrying illustration of the reprisals and harassment human rights defenders face in Russia.
Like previous decisions, including those to liquidate Memorial NGOs - the Nobel Peace Prize laureates - and All-Russia Movement for Human Rights, this decision is based on allegations that lack credibility and aims at obstructing the legitimate work of human rights organisations. Many of the remaining independent human rights groups, like the Sakharov Center, face continuous judicial harassment and incur the risk of forced dissolution on the basis of the laws on so-called “foreign agent” and “undesirable” NGOs.
In recent years, the crackdown on the freedoms of expression, assembly and association has been a key feature of the erosion of the rule of law and democracy in Russia. This climate of harassment and intimidation has made it extremely difficult and dangerous for human rights defenders to carry out their work and, ultimately, for the Russian people to enjoy and exercise their rights freely and safely.
Despite the dismal circumstances, Russian human rights defenders and the lawyers who defend them display an extraordinary commitment to democracy and freedom. Many of them were on the frontline in denouncing Russia’s war against Ukraine. Much like renowned Russian human rights defenders of the past, they show that beneath the monolithic facade of a repressive regime, committed individuals continue to work, defy persecution, and demonstrate that an alternative to oppression is possible.
Human rights defenders in Russia and their lawyers need our help. They need to know that we will continue to support them. Last August, I outlined a number of steps that Council of Europe member states should take in this direction. They remain relevant today, in particular the need for member states to recognise the preeminent role played by civil society in Russia in protecting human rights, democracy and the rule of law, to denounce their persecution and to provide them with political and practical support. International organisations have a role to play as well, for instance, by including Russian human rights defenders who defend our principles and standards in their activities.