The EU must be more vocal in its criticism of Vladimir Putin

While European governments have taken action against Russia's violations of Ukrainian sovereignty, too little is being done about its violations of the rights and freedoms of its own population.

While European governments have taken action against Russia’s violations of Ukrainian sovereignty, too little is being done about its violations of the rights and freedoms of its own population

Putin’s aggression toward its neighbours has required urgent attention but must never overshadow the human rights situation in Russia itself. Civil society, journalists and opposition figures are increasingly being repressed and intimidated.

Last Thursday, the European Parliament voted on a resolution urging Russia to stop the crackdown on civil society and non-governmental organisations. The direct cause of the resolution is the case of Memorial, a human rights group under threat of closure. Russia’s justice ministry asked the Supreme Court to “liquidate” Memorial, the final hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for November 13.

The closing of Memorial, a so-called ‘foreign agent,’ would be more than symbolic.

Its founder, Andrei Sakharov, inspired the name of the European Parliament human rights award. The Sakharov award was given to Memorial in 2009.

The organisation plays an important role in Russian society, preserving societal memory of the severe political repression and persecution during the Soviet Union.

It has been documenting human rights violations in the volatile north Caucasus region, and earlier this year Memorial called on the government to stop Russian aggression in Ukraine. Over the past years, Memorial has provided legal and moral support to some of the most important Russian critics of the regime, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Alexei Navalny.

More recently, it declared Nadia Savchenko, a Ukrainian fighter pilot being held in Russia, a political prisoner.

Memorial is now being brought to court because of a technical violation involving the group’s organisational structure, which lacks a central office to oversee all of its operations. The Group is meeting on the 19th of November to discuss its organisation, but the Supreme Court seems to be pushing ahead with the trial on the 13th.

At a time of strained relations between Russia and the EU, the message Putin wants to send is clear. But the attack on Memorial must be seen in the wider context of repression and persecution in Russia.

Russian laws systematically undermine freedoms and give authorities greater unchecked powers. A law on ‘foreign agents’ was adopted in July 2012, requiring NGOs that receive foreign funding and are engaged in what is termed as ‘political activity’ to be put on a special governments list, being subjected to increased scrutiny by the government. A branch of Memorial was also put on this list.

A wide crack-down on NGOs last year was instigated on the basis of this law. NGOs such as Amnesty international and Human Rights Watch were raided in a broad sweep that was billed as an attempt to weed out foreign agents.

Despite all of the above, Memorial’s board remains hopeful, that maybe the harsh attacks will backfire. Optimism often proves essential for surviving repression.

The government of the Russian federation should at the very least adhere to agreements it has itself made, in the context of the Council of Europe, the OSCE, the European Court of Human Rights, and of course its own constitution. We see a clear distinction between ill-guided Kremlin policies and the population of Russia.

Further, the EU must be more vocal of its criticism of Putin’s policies. The European Parliament has repeatedly called for the High Representative, Lady Ashton, and the European Council to put the questions of sanctions against Russian officials involved in human rights violations on the table.

Thus far, this has not happened. While European governments have taken action against Russia’s violations of Ukrainian sovereignty, too little is being done about its blatant violations of the rights and freedoms of its own population.

We must not allow the Kremlin to let Russia’s external aggression obscure its internal repression.

Marietje Schaake is a Dutch member of the European Parliament (D66/ALDE Group)

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