The Moscow City Court liquidated Russia's oldest human rights NGO, the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG; operated since 1976). The metropolitan department of the Ministry of Justice considered the work of the "Moscow" organization "outside" the region a violation of the law. Among 11 such episodes, in particular, is an online lecture by the MHG for human rights activists in the Krasnodar Territory. The MHG organized this lecture as part of the implementation of a presidential grant and even received a “thank you from the Ministry of Internal Affairs,” human rights activists defended themselves in court. The argument didn't work.
The liquidation of the MHG took six hours. In comparison with last year's liquidation of the "International Memorial" (included before the abolition in the register of foreign agents), which lasted two months, "unprecedented haste," the defenders of the MHG noted. There were seven of them at the trial in the Moscow City Court, including co-chairman of the organization Dmitry Makarov, executive director Svetlana Astrakhantseva and honored lawyer of Russia, vice-president of the Moscow Bar Chamber Henry Reznik. The purpose of the MHG is to protect human rights, which are not limited to Moscow, they insisted. The Ministry of Justice and the prosecutor's office did not agree with this, pointing out that attending courts in other regions and even giving lectures online is illegal.
In the fall of 2021, the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office drew attention to “possible violations” of the law “On NGOs” by MHG human rights activists. The agency, in particular, indicated that they go beyond “territorial activities” - they work not only in Moscow (as the name suggests), but also in other regions. The Ministry of Justice conducted an “unscheduled inspection” of the work of the MHG from November 2019 to October 2022 and identified 11 such episodes. Among them, the participation of MHG representatives in the City of Rights festival in Ufa (organized by the Human Rights Council under the head of Tatarstan) and court hearings in Ingushetia and Podolsk. The Ministry of Justice considered this "gross and regular violations of the law" and filed a lawsuit with the court for liquidation. The MHG challenged the very procedure for appointing an inspection, but the court refused without considering the application.
Prosecutor Ekaterina Oglio and representatives of the Ministry of Justice Margarita Mezentseva and Ivan Tatarnikov objected to the MHG's request to call more than ten witnesses. The request was rejected by the court.
Violations of the MHG are not only “gross and systematic”, but also “irrecoverable”, Ivan Tatarnikov explained to the court. He offered to get acquainted with the screenshots of publications on the MHG website about work in the regions. These publications, we note, were deleted back in January 2022, ten months before the check.
Among the claims of the Ministry of Justice to the MHG was the "failure to provide" the minutes of the meetings of a group of human rights activists. Svetlana Astrakhantseva asked Mr. Tatarnikov: “Didn’t I ask you, Ivan Dmitrievich, during the check, do you need the minutes of our online meetings in the covid 2020? Didn't you say, "No, you don't"? The plaintiff insisted: “At the time the verification was completed, there were no documents.” He also pointed out that the Ministry of Justice found “inconsistencies with the law” in the charter of the MHG, but admitted that his department in 2018 adopted this charter without any complaints.
MHG co-chairman Dmitry Makarov did not understand why the Ministry of Justice filed a lawsuit even before receiving explanations from human rights activists. “There is not a single norm of the law that would oblige us to wait for objections,” said Margarita Mezentseva. “That is, our opinion does not matter to you when forming your position?” Mr. Makarov continued. "No," retorted Mrs. Mezentseva.
Lawyer Ilya Sidorov recalled the government decree of March 10, 2022 “On the Features of Control”: “It says that control measures (NPOs in 2022 on the same basis as in previous years.— "b") will not be carried out. Prosecutor Ekaterina Oglio clarified that the prosecutor's office "on its own initiative" monitored the MHG website, guided not by government regulations, but by the law "On the Prosecutor's Office of the Russian Federation." Never before have such checks been “conducted” against MHG, she clarified.
“We are charged with our daily activities to unite people, it has not changed since 1976, it did not bother the Ministry of Justice during a total check in 2016,” said Dmitry Makarov. “Our mission is to protect human rights. The Ministry of Justice does not justify the public interest that it protects. What damage have we done?"
Svetlana Astrakhantseva spoke about 11 episodes that the Ministry of Justice called violations. She called the first visit to the court in Yaroslavl, where the case of torture of a prisoner in the colony by the FSIN officers “after 800 blows with sticks on the heels” was considered. Then a visit to the court in Podolsk in the case of Alexander Shestun, the former head of the Serpukhov district of Moscow, who was sentenced to 15 years in 2020. “What should we have told his family? Look for human rights activists in Podolsk, but we only work in Moscow?” Mrs. Astrakhantseva was indignant. She moved on to the third episode - participation in an online event in Sochi, where former MHG employee Nikolai Kretov "gave a lecture." The next violation was a collective letter from Russian human rights activists addressed to the governor of St. Petersburg. It expressed a demand to allow single pickets in September 2020. “The fifth episode, Ufa,” she continued. “The organizer is the council under the head of the Republic of Tatarstan for the development of civil society. Two representatives of the MHG took part in it on their own initiative. We went on Saturday and Sunday.
Among other episodes, there was again a trial in Podolsk, a trip to Sochi to a meeting on the criminal case of a colleague Semyon Simonov, an appeal against non-admission to this meeting, a trip to Ingushetia (MHG members watched the trial in the case of seven elders who advocated “for the return of their ancestral land in 2018). Finally, the head of the MHG got to the “civilian control event in the Krasnodar Territory” in December 2021. There, a MHG volunteer gave an online lecture on “monitoring the work of police bodies” as part of a program launched under a presidential grant (for which the NPO received gratitude from the Ministry of Internal Affairs).
Valery Borshchev admitted that he "did not think" to catch the liquidation of the MHG, which he created with Andrei Sakharov and Elena Bonner. “We initially decided that the MHG would build partnerships, unite and multiply the human rights movement. But it's absurd if we protect people only in Moscow,” he became inflamed and shook his finger at his opponents. “The second chapter of the Constitution is that human rights are extraterritorial. Well, how can you reproach that someone went to the court session?! It amazes me how easily you decide our fate. It required a lot of effort, it cost the lives of people who died in the camps.”
Lawyer Ilya Sidorov even challenged the judge, considering that he was “prejudiced” and “in a hurry to complete the process” in one day, but the judge rejected this requirement.
In the debate, the parties repeated the arguments, only Henry Reznik, who had been silent until now, turned out to be the new voice. He spoke of "military confrontation" and "confrontation with the West", in which "the first disciples are eager to render the first ministry", and warned - "the law is in danger." The court did not listen to these arguments and liquidated the Moscow Helsinki Group.