Moscow (AFP) -
Russia's Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the closure of Memorial, the country's most prominent rights group, which chronicled Stalin-era purges and symbolised the post-Soviet democratisation.
Judge Alla Nazarova ordered the closure of Memorial International, the organisation's central structure, over breaches of its designation as a 'foreign agent' by not marking all its publications with the label as required by law.
The 'foreign agent' legislation, which carries Stalin-era connotations, brands organisations receiving foreign funds as acting against Russia's interests.
Prosecutors also accused Memorial International of denigrating the memory of the Soviet Union and its victories and rehabilitating 'Nazi criminals'.
During Tuesday's hearing a prosecutor said Memorial 'creates a false image of the USSR as a terrorist state and denigrates the memory of World War II'.
'It's been decided to shut down Memorial International and its regional branches,' the group said on Telegram.
The court decision, which will not be open to appeal in a Russian court, is the hardest blow yet to the organisation founded in 1989 by Soviet dissidents including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov.
The organisation is a loose structure of locally registered organisations, with Memorial International maintaining the network's extensive archives in Moscow and coordinating its work.
The group has spent years cataloguing atrocities committed in the Soviet Union, especially in the notorious network of prison camps, the Gulag.
The move against Memorial caps a crackdown that has seen authorities jail President Vladimir Putin's top critic Alexei Navalny, outlaw his organisations and crack down on independent media and rights groups.
But the ban against Memorial International stands out even in the current climate. Supporters say its closure signals the end of an era in Russia's post-Soviet democratisation process, which began 30 years ago this month.
On Tuesday, dozens of supporters gathered outside the courthouse in freezing temperatures and several people were detained.
Supporter Maria Biryukova said Russia needed Memorial to make sure the country did not repeat mistakes of the past.
'We need to know our history, to understand well what is happening. Memorial tells the truth, in no way does it denigrate the country,' she told AFP.
Memorial's lawyers and founders have denied any serious violations, saying its material was properly marked and that only an insignificant number of documents may have been missing the tag.
Tuesday's hearing was one of two cases brought against the group. Prosecutors have also demanded a court close Memorial's Human Rights Centre, accusing it of condoning 'terrorism and extremism' in addition to breaches of the 'foreign agent' legislation.
On Wednesday, a Moscow court will hold a new hearing in that case.
- Denounced by Putin -
Memorial has also campaigned for the rights of political prisoners, migrants and other marginalised groups, and highlighted abuses especially in the turbulent North Caucasus region that includes Chechnya.
The group has been in the cross-hairs of the authorities for years.
On Monday, a court in the northwestern city of Petrozavodsk increased a prison sentence for the head of Memorial in Karelia, Yury Dmitriyev, to a total of 15 years.
His supporters say he is being punished for his work locating mass graves of people killed under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
Sentenced last year to 13 years in prison on what his supporters say were fabricated child sex charges, the 65-year-old will now spend two additional years in prison.
Putin has said Memorial had been advocating on behalf of 'terrorist and extremist organisations'.
The trials come after Russia blocked the website of the OVD-Info rights monitor, which works with Memorial, at the weekend, saying it promoted terrorism and extremism.
OVD-Info has tracked opposition protests and provided legal support to victims of political persecution, while Memorial has compiled a list of political prisoners that includes Navalny.
On Tuesday, Navalny's team said authorities had detained the heads of his now-dismantled offices in the Siberian regions of Irkutsk and Tomsk, Zakhar Sarapulov and Ksenia Fadeyeva, who is also a local lawmaker.