April 24, 2013

V. The “Dima Yakovlev Law”

On December 28, 2012, Putin signed Law No. 272-FZ, which defines sanctions against US officials implicated in violations of human rights of Russian citizens, and introduced a ban on the adoption of Russian children by US citizens.[148] It also bans Russian NGOs that either engage in “political” activities and receive funding emanating from the US or engage in activities that threaten Russia’s interests.[149]

The law is informally known as the Dima Yakovlev law for the Russian toddler who died in the US three months after he was adopted by an American family.  It is widely accepted in Russia that the bill was passed in retaliation for the so-called Magnitsky Act, signed into law by US President Barack Obama in December 2012, which called for visa bans and asset freezes on Russian officials implicated in torture and killings of whistleblowers in Russia.[150]

Restrictions Relating to NGOs

Public controversy around Law No. 272-FZ focused on the ban on adoptions by US citizens. Less heralded were provisions introducing yet more restrictions on NGOs in Russia.

In particular, the law provides for:

Suspension of NGOs that either

Engage in “political activities” in Russia and are funded by US individuals or organizations or;

Are involved in activities that present a “threat to Russia’s interests.”[151]

Assets of such organizations can be frozen based on a court decision made at request of a relevant executive agency.[152]

The law also authorizes a designated agency to allow suspended organizations to resume work, provided they stop receiving US funding or cease involvement in “threatening” activities. [153]

Prohibition of Russian citizens who also hold US passports from managing or being members of noncommercial organizations that conduct political activities on Russia’s territory.[154]

Exempt from the law are NGO activities in the areas of science, culture, the arts, health protection, protection of persons with disabilities, protection of plant and animal life, and charity work.[155]

Implications for Freedom of Association and Expression

Law No. 272-FZ’s provisions related to NGOs threaten freedom of association because they are vague, discriminatory, excessively punitive, and open the way to arbitrary application. The law does not define “political activity.” Other Russian legislation regulating the activities of NGOs stipulates that a noncommercial organization, with the exception of political parties, is considered to be carrying out political activity if it

participates (including through financing) in organizing and implementing political actions aimed at influencing the decision-making by state bodies intended for the change of state policy pursued by them, as well as in the shaping of public opinion for the aforementioned purposes.[156]

Second, the law defines neither what “Russia’s interests” are, nor what constitutes a “threat” to those interests. Third, it grants a designated agency the authority to determine whether an NGO is involved in “political activities” and receives US funding or is involved in activities that present a “threat to Russia’s interests” and to suspend such organizations without a court order. Finally, the law does not require a prior warning for the suspension, nor does it specify a limit on the duration of the suspension. [157]

Lastly, Law No. 272-FZ prohibits citizens of the Russian Federation who also hold US citizenship from being “members or managers” of noncommercial organizations that participate in “political activity” on the territory of the Russian Federation or of representative offices or branches of foreign organizations that conduct political activities in Russia. If this restriction is violated, the work of the Russian organization or the representative office of a foreign organization can be suspended. It is unclear at this point how the term “members” will be interpreted by the Russian authorities and courts and whether the provision will be applicable to all staff members or just those who are in decision-making positions.

As the law was being debated in the Duma, there was public debate about whether the Duma was targeting Ludmilla Alexeeva, the chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Russia’s oldest independent human rights organization, with these provisions. Alexeeva, a Russian national and one of the group’s founders, was granted US citizenship after she was forced to leave the Soviet Union in the 1970s. She returned to Moscow during the glasnost period of the early 1990s. Several Duma deputies denied that this provision was targeted at Alexeeva but pointed out that she would have to step down. Alexeeva has stated numerous times that she would not step down; the Moscow Helsinki Group’s board has unanimously supported this decision. [158]


Human Rights Watch is not aware of any efforts to date to implement the NGO-related provisions of Law No. 272-FZ. It is not clear whether the March-April 2013 inspection campaign aimed to check NGOs’ compliance with this law.

In late February, a Ministry of Justice official told an NGO roundtable that the ministry had not been authorized to assess whether organizations “threatened” Russia’s interests and suggested that other agencies would be empowered to do so.[159]

[148] Federal Law On Measures Aimed at Influencing Individuals in Relation to the Violation of Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms, the Rights and Freedoms of Russian Federation Citizens,” No. 272-FZ, 2012, http://base.consultant.ru/cons/cgi/online.cgi?req=doc;base=LAW;n=139994 (accessed March 2, 2013), art. 4 para. 1. For provisions relating to sanctions on US officials implicated in human rights abuses, see article 1(a)-(z). The law is informally referred to in the Duma as the “Dima Yakovlev law,” in memory of a Russian orphan adopted by an American family in 2008. The boy died less than two months after arriving to the US, after his adoptive father left him alone in a car for several hours. A court in Texas ruled the boy’s death accidental and acquitted the father of manslaughter charges. “Adopted son died. Father got away with a faint [Приемный сын умер. Отец отделался обмороком],” Izvestia, December 19, 2008, http://izvestia.ru/news/343896 (accessed February 23, 2013).

[149] Federal Law No. 272-FZ of 2012, art. 3.

[150] Human Rights Watch news release, “Russia: Reject Adoption Ban Bill,” December 21, 2012, http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/12/21/russia-reject-adoption-ban-bill.

[151] Federal Law No. 272-FZ of 2012, art. 5, para. 1.

[152] Ibid, art. 3, para. 3.

[153] Ibid, art. 3, para. 4.

[154] Ibid, art. 3 para. 2.

[155] For the full list of exempted activities, see Federal Law “On Noncommercial organizations,” No. 7-FZ, 1996, as amended, http://base.consultant.ru/cons/cgi/online.cgi?req=doc;base=LAW;n=142050 (accessed February 6, 2013), art. 2, para. 6.

[156] Ibid.

[157] See, for example, “The club of the Kremlin’s wrath [Дубина кремлевского гнева],” Lenta.ru, December 27, 2012, http://lenta.ru/articles/2012/12/27/antimagnitsky/ (accessed February 2, 2013).

[158] “The Moscow Helsinki Group retains its leader [Московская Хельсинкская группа сохранила главу],”Kommersant, January 11, 2013, http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2102586 (accessed April 17, 2013).

[159] Independent Council for Legal Expertise, Roundtable discussion on the implementation of the Federal Law “On noncommercial organizations” relating to registration as “foreign agents,” Moscow, February 26, 2013.