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(Moscow) – The Russian government has unleashed a crackdown on civil society in the year since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency that is unprecedented in the country’s post-Soviet history.

The 78-page report, “Laws of Attrition: Crackdown on Russia’s Civil Society after Putin’s Return to the Presidency,”describes some of the changes since Putin returned to the presidency in May 2012. The authorities have introduced a series of restrictive laws, begun a nationwide campaign of invasive inspections of nongovernmental organizations, harassed, intimidated, and in a number of cases imprisonedpolitical activists, and sought to cast government critics as clandestine enemies. The report analyzes the new laws, including the so-called “foreign agents” law, the treason law, and the assembly law, and documents how they have been used.

“The new laws and government harassment are pushing civil society activists to the margins of the law,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government crackdown is hurting Russian society and harming Russia’s international standing.”

Many of the new laws and the treatment of civil society violate Russia’s international human rights commitments, Human Rights Watch said.

Several of the new laws seek to limit, or even end, independent advocacy by placing new, draconian limits on association with foreigners and foreign funding. The “foreign agents” law requires organizations that receive foreign funding and supposedly engage in “political activities” to register as “foreign agents.”Another law, adopted in December, essentially bans funding emanating from the United States for “political” activity by nongovernmental organizations, and bans groups whose work is “directed against Russia’s interests.” A third law, the treason law, expands the legal definition of treason in ways that could criminalize involvement in international human rights advocacy.

The report documents the nationwide campaign of intrusive government inspections of the offices of hundreds of organizations, involving officials from the prosecutor’s office, the Justice Ministry, the tax inspectorate, and in some cases the anti-extremism police, health inspectorate, and the fire inspectorate. The inspection campaign, which began in March 2013, was prompted by the “foreign agents” law.

Although many organizations have not received the inspection results, at least two have been cited for failing to register as “foreign agents,” and others have been fined for fire safety violations, air quality violations, and the like, Human Rights Watch said. Inspectors examined the groups’ tax, financial, registration, and other documents. In several cases they demanded to inspect computers or email. In one case, officials demanded that an organization prove that its staff had had been vaccinated for smallpox, and in another the officials asked for chest X-rays of staff to ensure they did not have tuberculosis. In yet another case, officials demanded copies of all speeches made at the group’s recent seminars and conferences.

“The government claims the inspections are routine, but they clearly are not,” said Williamson. “The campaign is unprecedented in its scope and scale, and seems clearly aimed at intimidating and marginalizing civil society groups. This inspection campaign can potentially be used to force some groups to end advocacy work, or to close them down.”

The first organization against which Russian authorities filed administrative charges for failing to register as a “foreign agent” was Golos, the election monitoring group that had documented violations in the 2011 parliamentary vote. A court in Moscow is scheduled to rule on the case on April 25. Golos and its director face maximum fines of 500,000 (approximately US$16,280) and 300,000 rubles (approximately US$9,700), respectively. If the court rules in the ministry’s favor, the organization would either be forced to register as a “foreign agent” or would be further sanctioned under the “foreign agents” law.

The “foreign agents” law does nothing more than demonize groups that already reported to the authorities on foreign funding and their activities, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should immediately withdraw the charges against Golos.

As the laws were being debated and adopted, pro-government media outlets ran propaganda campaigns targeting prominent nongovernmental groups, accusing them of promoting Western interests in exchange for funding.

“The term ‘foreign agent’ is ubiquitously understood in Russia to mean a spy or traitor, and it is difficult to avoid the impression that by adopting this law, Russian authorities sought to discredit and demonize civil society groups that accept foreign funding,” Williamson said.

In addition to the laws specifically aimed at nongovernmental groups, the government has subjected Internet content to new restrictions. Libel, decriminalized at the end of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency, was recriminalized seven months later. A new assembly law imposes limits on public demonstrations, and provides for a maximum fine on those found to violate the law that is 10 times the average monthly wage in Russia.

Russia’s Constitutional Court has ruled that several of the assembly law’s provisions were unconstitutional, and the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe found that the amendments represent “a step backward for the protection of freedom of assembly” and urged Russia to repeal or revise key provisions. The Venice Commission is currently reviewing the “foreign agents” law and the new treason law.

The new law regulating Internet content creates a federal register of websites that host child pornography images, narcotics-related content, and information that “incites people to commit suicide.” Several government agencies are already authorized to submit websites for the registry without a court order.

Once a website is on the registry, content-hosting providers have 24 hours to notify the website owner to remove the prohibited content. The website owner is given another 24 hours to comply. If the website owner fails to take down the banned content, Internet service providers must cut off access to the website within 24 hours. The lack of transparency and independent oversight over administration of the register raises concerns that the new Internet content law could be abused to silence criticism of the government online, Human Rights Watch said.

The Russian government should end the crackdown on civil society and instead respect basic civil and political rights to foster an environment in which civil society can thrive, Human Rights Watch said. It should repeal overly restrictive legal provisions and follow recommendations from such intergovernmental organizations as the Council of Europe and the United Nations to bring legislation and practices into line with Russia’s commitments under international law.

The Council of Europe should request the Venice Commission, its advisory panel on constitutional matters, to review the December 2012 amendments to the law on nongovernmental organizations, the Internet content law, and the law reinstating criminal liability for libel with a view to determining their compliance with Russia’s obligations under the European Convention, Human Rights Watch said.

The European Union should articulate a unified policy toward Russia that commits the 27 EU Member States and EU institutions to a strong and principled common message on the crackdown in Russia and on the central role of human rights in the EU-Russia relationship.

“Russia’s international partners should leave no doubt about the seriousness with which they view the crackdown underway in Russia, and impress upon Moscow the urgent need to stop abuses,” Williamson said.

A key opportunity for Russia’s partners to mark strong concern about the crackdown is the upcoming Universal Periodic Review before the UN Human Rights Council, to take place on April 29 in Geneva, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch is publishing “Laws of Attrition: The Crackdown on Russia’s Civil Society after Putin’s Return to the Presidency” together with Amnesty International and their report, “Freedom under threat: The clampdown on freedom of expression, assembly and association in Russia.” The two human rights organizations expose the ongoing assault on freedoms of expression, association, and assembly which gathered strength during the first year of Putin’s third presidential term.

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