New Phase of Government’s ‘Foreign Agents’ Campaign Threatens Critics
November 7, 2013 Update
A local prosecutor has filed another civil suit against a Russian group for failing to register as a foreign agent. The Oktyabrysky district prosecutor’s office in Saratov, 725 kilometers southeast of Moscow, filed a civil suit on September 10 against the Center for Social Policy and Gender Studies, a group that researches and organizes academic discussions about contemporary social problems.
In its complaint, the prosecutor’s office cited three activities by the group that were deemed “political,” including a seminar the group organized entitled, “Review of Social Policy in the Post-Soviet Era: Ideologies, Actors, and Cultures” and an April 2013 publication by the group, Critical Analysis of the Social Policy in the Countries of Former Soviet Union.The complaint quoted an expert assessment by a Saratov State Legal Academy professor that stated, “In a transitional society any issue could become political… if it concerns a large number of people, and social policy is no exception.” The prosecutor also cited a petition campaign that several activists started to protect the group from the “foreign agents” law. Hearings started on October 31, and the case is pending.
(Moscow) – Two independent organizations could become the first victims of new legal tactics by Russianprosecutors to limit human rights work.
Having failed in administrative court proceedings to force six prominent groups to register as “foreign agents” under a 2012 law, the prosecutors then filed civil suits against two groups. Hearings in one of the cases began on October 31, 2013.
“The prosecutor’s office is using new legal tactics but the same discredited arguments as it tries to silence the Russian government’s critics,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “They have largely lost in their efforts to force groups to register as ‘foreign agents’ through the courts, and now here they go again.”
The prosecutor’s office should immediately withdraw the lawsuits, Human Rights Watch said.
A district prosecutor’s office in St. Petersburg filed the civil suit on July 12 against the Anti-Discrimination Сenter “Memorial” (ADC), a prominent Russian group that assists victims of xenophobic violence and discrimination. The prosecutor’s compliant claimed that by persistently refusing to register as “foreign agent,” the group was misleading the public about its work. The civil suit asks the court to order ADC to register as a “foreign agent.” Hearings on the merits of the case have not yet begun.
The same prosecutor’s office had filed an identical administrative case against ADC in April but lost its case in the courts.
On September 3 the city prosecutor’s office in Novocherkassk, 1050 kilometers southwest of Moscow, filed a similar civil suit against Women of the Don, a group that works on peacebuilding and human rights education. The hearings in that case began on October 31. Prosecutors had not filed an administrative case against this group.
If the courts rule in favor of the prosecutor’s office, after the verdicts enter into force the groups will have two weeks to register as “foreign agents.” If they fail to do so, their respective leaders could risk criminal prosecution under the terms of the “foreign agents” law that could lead to prison terms of up to two years.
Amendments to Russia’s laws regulating nongovernmental organizations, adopted in July 2012, requireany organization receiving foreign funding and engaging in “political activities” to register as a “foreign agent” and identify itself as such in all publications.
The “foreign agents” law contradicts Russia’s international human rights obligations to protect freedom of association and expression, and the law’s definition of political activities is so broadthat it could include any organized activity relating to public life, Human Rights Watch said.
“In law and in practice, we’ve seen that the authorities’ definition of political’ includes activities that are a routine part of advocacy work,” Denber said. “The aim here is to demonize independent critics as agents of foreign interests.”
Russia’s civil procedure code allows the prosecutor’s office to file civil suits to protect the rights, freedoms, and lawful interests of, among others, “undefined groups of persons or interests of the Russian Federation.”
In the complaints against both groups, which Human Rights Watch has reviewed, the respective prosecutor’s offices claimed the groups received foreign funding and engaged in “political activity.” The Novocherkassk prosecutor’s office referred to Women of the Don’s criticism of police practices, its online and media publications, and its roundtables on police reform, among other things, as evidence of “political activity.”
The prosecutor’s office in St. Petersburg cited “Roma, Migrants, Activists: Victims of Police Abuse, ”the group’s 2012 report on police abuse against Roma and migrants. The complaint contends that the report’s criticism of police practices “dishonors police officers and damages their public image” and that the report constituted political activity because it aims to influence public opinion. The prosecutor’s office cited the same report and used the same argument in its unsuccessful administrative suit.
The report was a submission to the United Nations Committee Against Torture to provide background for the committee’s regular review of Russia’s compliance with the Convention Against Torture. In a May 2013 letter to Russian authorities and a June statement, the committee expressed concern about government reprisals against ADC for providing information to the committee. The annual reportof the UN high commissioner for human rights cited those concerns and similar ones from UN independent human rights experts.
ADC and Women of the Don were first targeted by their local prosecutor’s offices in March, during Russia’s unprecedented campaign of government inspections of nongovernmental groups. As a result of the inspection campaign, at least 80 organizations received warnings or orders from prosecutors’ offices to register as “foreign agents” for involvement in such work as election transparency, human rights monitoring, countering lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) discrimination, and environmental advocacy.
Prosecutors have won at least two administrative cases against a group that refused to register. The group appealed the ruling to Russia’s Constitutional Court, and the case is pending. The Justice Ministry has won two administrative cases against two other groups, and one case against one of the group’s leaders.
While all the government inspections were intrusive, those at the offices of ADC and Women of the Don were among the most aggressive and hostile of the dozens Human Rights Watch examined.
In March nine officials from the prosecutor’s office and five other government agencies inspected Women of the Don, demanding, among other things, employers’ immunization records and proof that employees had undergone health exams. The officials also inspected the building’s ventilation system, computer software, and the organization’s financial documents and labor contracts. Valentina Cherevatenko, the group’s director, told Human Rights Watch that a Federal Security Service officer went through some of the books in the office library looking for “extremist literature.”
ADC’s director, Stefania Kulaeva, told Human Rights Watch that during the government’s inspection, also in March, officials demanded documents proving that the office met requirements under government regulations on climate, lighting, and acoustics control. Inspectors also demanded employees’ chest x-rays to confirm that they did not have tuberculosis.
In April the group’s office was also inspectedby the Fire Safety Service and punitively fined 166,000 rubles (US$5,200) four months later because an office door was supposedly 10 centimeters short of the legally required width and one of the organization’s extension cords was deemed too old. The group is appealing the fine in court.
On April 30 the district prosecutor filedan administrative case against ADC for failing to register as a “foreign agent” and another one against its director. The prosecutor’s office filed the civil suit after losing both cases in trial court. By the time preliminary hearings were under way in the civil case, the prosecutor had also lost its appeals in both administrative cases.