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Amendments to a controversial bill on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have not significantly changed the extremely negative impact it would have on Russian human rights organizations and may still result in the closure of affiliate offices of foreign human rights groups.

Human Rights Watch urged leaders of the Group of 8 nations, of which Russia assumes the chairmanship on January 1, to make the legislation a central issue in upcoming summits and other meetings. President Vladimir Putin is expected to sign the legislation before the end of the year.

Although the parliament has softened somewhat its original draconian bill, the legislation still obliges offices of foreign NGOs to inform the government registration office about their projects for the upcoming year, and about the money allotted for every specific project. Russian government officials would have an unprecedented level of discretion in deciding what projects, or even parts of NGO projects, comply with Russia’s national interests, as required by the bill.

Officials from the registration office could prohibit foreign NGOs from implementing projects without “the aim of defending the constitutional system, morals, public health, rights and lawful interest of other people, guaranteeing defense capacity and security of the state.” If a foreign NGO implements a banned project, the registration office could close its offices in Russia.

“This unprecedented assault on the work of human rights groups will invariably undermine the rights of all Russians,” said Holly Cartner, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. “Leaders of the G8 countries must put this issue at the top of their agenda with President Putin.”

President Putin has claimed that the law’s limitations on NGOs are necessary “to prevent financing political activities from abroad.” But the bill gives no definition of “political activism,” raising serious concerns that the term could be interpreted very broadly by government officials.

The Russian government has also claimed that the bill fully complies with international norms and standards. While the government is entitled to regulate non-governmental organizations, the broad and ambiguous scope of the law poses a serious threat to the rights to freedom of association and expression, in violation of Russia’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, said Human Rights Watch. The 1998 U.N. Declaration on Human Rights Defenders calls on states to respect the rights of human rights defenders through legislation and administration.

Several senior officials of the Russian government have recently made statements that appear intended to undermine without basis the legitimacy of foreign NGOs. On December 8, Sergei Lebedev, head of the Russian intelligence service, charged that foreign “NGOs are very attractive for intelligence services.... as covers, masks, screens.” On December 1, Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Yakovenko claimed that “Russia’s foreign policy is perceived inadequately abroad.... because Russian and foreign media quote opinions and comments of NGOs financed by western money.”

The bill was pushed through the parliament without prior public discussion, even at the newly constituted Public Chamber that was designed to represent the interests of civil society. It has produced a wave of indignation and protests both from Russia’s human rights community and from government agencies responsible for human rights monitoring. Although some of their complaints were taken into consideration, the bill is still a piece of repressive legislation.

“Putting the bill into force will be catastrophic for the protection of human rights in Russia,” said Cartner. “There’s still time for President Putin to stop this bill in its tracks, but that time is running out.”

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