A Russian court has ordered the closure of the country’s oldest human rights group in a landmark decision.
A judge deliberated for 20 minutes at the Moscow City Court on Wednesday before ruling to close the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG), set up by Soviet dissident scientists including Andrei Sakharov, the Nobel Peace Prize winner.
The organisation was originally founded in 1976 to hold authorities accountable for violating the Helsinki Accords that the Soviet Union signed up to, pledging to respect human rights.
Its founders were soon persecuted, jailed or forced into exile.
The group was revived with the advent of perestroika in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.
Russian prosecutors filed a lawsuit against the MHG last year, claiming that it violated its charter by operating across Russia when the group is technically registered in the city of Moscow.
The Helsinki Group has dismissed the accusations as a pretext to punish it for its work, insisting that human rights are a universal value.
“I’m 80 years old and I never thought I’d live to see a court hearing that decimates human rights activism,” Valery Boshhchev, the NGO’s co-chairman, told the court as quoted by the MediaZona media outlet.
“How can you destroy with such ease what took decades to build?”
Thanks to its long-standing reputation, the MHG was able to shed light on rights abuses across Russia, with its representatives travelling to remote parts of the country to attend court hearings in politically tainted cases.
Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, had for years hosted Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the group’s long-time chief, for official meetings to listen to her grievances at sessions of his human rights council.
Just one year before she died at the age of 91, Ms Alexeyeva received a state award for “distinguished service in charity work” and hosted Putin for tea.
The Russian president then praised the Helsinki Group for their “significant contribution to the strengthening of democratic institutions and civil society” in Russia.