Russian law enforcement officers recently raided the research center operated by Memorial in St. Petersburg. Memorial is a respected non-governmental organization dedicated to remembering the victims of totalitarian repression.
Masked authorities seized computer hardware and other materials containing the files of thousands of people who had been repressed during the Soviet regime. In violation of the Russian Criminal Procedure Code, no record of the seized items or the content of hard drives was made and a lawyer was not allowed on the premises.
Representatives of the center stressed that the seized materials are of great research and historical value. They fear that the valuable information may be lost.
The United States urges the Russian government to ensure the speedy and safe return of all seized equipment and archival material. Civil society organizations such as the Memorial research center play a critical role in the development of democratic societies and the promotion of human rights.
Unfortunately, this action against Memorial is not an isolated instance of pressure against freedom of association and expression in Russia. Members of the independent media have been the victims of violent, and even deadly, attacks. Most of the perpetrators have yet to be brought to justice.
In September, the editor of an opposition website in Ingushetia was shot to death while in police custody. In November, the editor-in-chief of a Khimki-based independent newspaper that had criticized local authorities in exposing environmental abuses was brutally assaulted. In the last fifteen years, according to some sources, up to 300 journalists have been killed in Russia, making it the third deadliest country for journalists worldwide.
The role of the media and non-governmental organizations like Memorial are invaluable to the development of a democratic society in Russia. "It is imperative," said U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, "that these organizations and individuals be allowed to function and flourish, free of political pressure, intimidation, harassment, or restrictions."