Russia shuts down top rights group amid crackdown on critics

Moscow (AFP) –


Russia's Supreme Court on Friday issued a ruling to wind up the operations of a respected rights group, sparking outrage amid an increasing crackdown on campaigners and the opposition.

The group, For Human Rights, vowed to appeal the ruling, which is the latest in a series of legal actions by the authorities in recent years seen as steadily ramping up pressure on rights campaigners.

It comes after the government in February added For Human Rights to a register of "foreign agents," a label given to organisations seen as political that implies they receive funding from overseas.

The group, which investigates rights abuses, said it had a month to file an appeal against the Supreme Court ruling.

"We will appeal the ruling and also go to the European Court of Human Rights," said the group's chief Lev Ponomaryov, one of the country's most prominent activists.

"The movement itself will continue to live and work," he told AFP.

For Human Rights, founded in 1997, is one of Russia's oldest rights groups with a mission to promote the rule of law and civil society. It is made up of a number of regional and local rights organisations.

Ponomaryov, 78, is a former physics professor who rose to prominence as an activist in the late 1980s and served in Russia's first post-Soviet parliament.

In recent years, he has been a vocal opponent of President Vladimir Putin's government.

The Russian justice ministry had accused his group of multiple violations including failing to always use the "foreign agent" tag on its publications.

The group argued in court that these were not sufficient grounds for liquidation.

"This is a historic trial. This is being done for the first time, the largest rights organisation in Russia is being liquidated. I'm sure there's huge interest in the country and in the world in this trial," Ponomaryov told the court.

- 'They have lost it' -

The legal decision to close down the group prompted outraged responses from opponents of the Kremlin.

"The authorities have lost it!" wrote Kremlin critic and former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky on Twitter.

"It's time for the elite to realise that there is only one person who still has rights," opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov added, referring to Putin.

For Human Rights has faced an onslaught of legal action and the justice ministry has sought to close it down for months.

In December last year Ponomaryov spent more than two weeks in jail for urging people to take part in an unsanctioned rally in Moscow.

Earlier this month Russia declared opposition leader Alexei Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) a "foreign agent", tightening the screws on the group.

The tag, reminiscent of the Soviet-era crackdown on dissidents, obliges them to submit documents every three months outlining their finances.

The measure comes as Russian officials accuse the West of trying to undermine the country, characterising internal criticism as the work of spies and traitors.

Last month Putin removed several opposition figures from his human rights council, an advisory body that has spoken out against abuses but has been losing influence in recent years.

In March, a court in Chechnya sentenced Oyub Titiyev, who ran the Chechen office of Memorial rights group, one of Russia's oldest, to four years in jail for drugs offences in a trial that drew condemnation from international groups. Titiyev, 62, was released on parole in June.