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Russia’s parliament should reject legislation that would tighten government control over Russian civil society groups and force foreign organizations in Russia to close, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper today.

On Wednesday, November 23, the State Duma is scheduled to consider the draft law in first reading. The bill has been sponsored by all four factions in the Duma. If adopted, the law would have far-reaching consequences for Russia’s already severely weakened civil society. It would require all nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to re-register ahead of the upcoming national elections, would prohibit foreign NGOs from operating in the country, and would give the government wide discretion to interfere in the work of Russian NGOs.

“This law signals a new chapter in the government’s crackdown on civil society institutions,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Now that the Kremlin has neutralized other checks and balances, NGOs remain among the last independent voices that can criticize the government and demand accountability in Russia.”

In the new briefing paper, “Managing Civil Society: Are NGOs Next?” Human Rights Watch analyses how the Kremlin eliminated most independent media, destroyed regional elites as a political force, installed a pliant parliament, and undermined the independence of the judiciary. The draft law comes against the backdrop of these deliberate attempts to dismantle the system of checks and balances to President Vladimir Putin’s power.

Although NGOs continued to operate relatively freely when Putin came to power, the government began to systematically harass NGOs that work on issues related to Chechnya after Putin lashed out against NGOs in his 2004 state-of-the-nation speech. Since then, officials have instituted spurious criminal charges against activists, threatened them, sought to close down NGOs or refused to register them, and intimidated victims who have spoken up.

The Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, for example, has been under sustained attack over the past year. In early November, the Nizhnii Novgorod Department of Justice unsuccessfully sought to close down the organization through the courts. Stanislav Dmitrievsky, the director of the organization, is on trial on charges of inciting hatred for publishing interviews with two Chechen rebel leaders, and faces a five-year prison term if found guilty. The tax inspectorate has claimed 1 million rubles (roughly US$35,000) in back taxes—a claim that the organization is contesting.

The working environment for many other NGOs in Russia has deteriorated significantly with officials increasingly launching into angry tirades against them. For example, officials have repeatedly and vehemently attacked the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers.

“The express purpose of this law is to emasculate the NGO community,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The State Duma should kill the bill.”

The bill bars international organizations from having representative or branch offices in Russia. Such groups would have to re-register as local NGOs and be financially independent from their head offices. It would render them ineligible for most sources of foreign funding. The bill also prohibits anyone who is not a permanent resident of Russia from working at an NGO. Among the organizations threatened with closure are international human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, think-tanks, foundations, social welfare and humanitarian aid organizations.

Moreover, the bill drastically expands government oversight over local NGOs, giving the Justice Department the right to demand any financial and other papers from them at any time. In other countries, such as Uzbekistan, similar strictures have been used to harass NGOs on political grounds.

Information from sources in the State Duma indicates that the bill has been fast-tracked. A joint second and third reading could be held on December 9, after which it would go to the Senate for approval. If approved, the bill could become law before the end of the year.

“It is deeply worrying that such an important bill be rushed through the Duma without any meaningful public discussion,” said Cartner. “NGOs hardly have the opportunity to carefully consider it and put forward their objections.”

Human Rights Watch called on the international community to take urgent steps to stop or, at least, delay passage of this legislation. It should make it clear to President Putin that enactment of this bill would have serious consequences for Russia’s standing in the international arena.

“The international community needs to act immediately,” Cartner said. “The short timeline makes it critical that steps are taken now.”

In its current form, the legislation violates numerous obligations under international law, including the rights to freedom of expression and association, and provisions prohibiting discrimination.

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