Russian rights group told to quit Saint Petersburg offices

Memorial, which speaks out about human rights violations in Russia, has faced pressure from authorities, such as when Yury Dmitriyev (pictured April 2018), the head of the group's Karelia branch, was charged with sexual assault

Authorities in Saint Petersburg have moved to evict Russia's main human rights NGO Memorial from the offices it has occupied in the country's second city for over 20 years, the group said Thursday.

The municipal services "recently told us that they cut short a contract for the use of the premises where our organisation has been based since 1997," Galina Skholnik, the director of the NGO's Saint Petersburg branch, told AFP.

"This was completely unexpected. We were sure that the contract would be (extended) as usual. We have not violated any rules," Shkolnik said, adding that she did not know what motivated the local authorities' decision.

"Either somebody wants to use the (centrally located) premises, or we are having problems because we are a foreign agent," she said.

In 2016, Russian authorities labelled Memorial a "foreign agent" under a 2012 law that obliges groups deemed to have "political" activities and international funding 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.

These rules have seen some organisations reject much-needed funding from abroad, while others have closed down since it took effect.

Memorial, which speaks out about human rights violations in Russia, has faced pressure from the authorities in recent months.

The head of the group's Chechnya branch Oyub Titiyev has been under arrest in the North Caucasus republic since January on what international rights groups have called bogus drug charges.

The head of the group's Karelia branch, in northwestern Russia, was charged with sexual assault in a controversial case last month.

Authorities in Saint Petersburg were not immediately available for comment.