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(Moscow) – Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland should urge Russian leaders to end the crackdown on civil society groups during his visit to Russia. Jagland is in Moscow on May 19 to 22, 2013 for meetings with President Vladimir Putin and the Russian parliament.

“This is a crucial time for Secretary General Jagland to stand up for Council of Europe standards in Russia,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Russian government’s crackdown on civil society is unprecedented, and has created a profoundly hostile climate for human rights work.”

The centerpiece of the government crackdown is a law that entered into force in November 2012 requiring nongovernmental organizations that accept foreign funding and engage in “political activity” to register as “foreign agents.”

Since March, the government has inspected hundreds of groups across Russia, including the Human Rights Watch Moscow office, as part of a massive campaign to identify “foreign agents” and to force targeted organizations to register as “foreign agents.”

The government has filed administrative complaints against at least 5 groups, ordered at least 14 others to register or face administrative charges, and warned another 33 to register as “foreign agents” if they plan to carry out “political activities” or to receive foreign funding, based on a list compiled by Human Rights Watch.

Before the law was adopted, Jagland criticized its use of language, saying that it had “very negative historic connotations,” and criticized its passage without adequate time for reflection and debate by Russian legislators and the public.

An October 2012 resolution by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe stated that a series of new restrictive laws, including the “foreign agents” law, were “potentially regressive in terms of democratic development,” and urged the authorities “not to make use of them in this harmful way.” In October 2013, the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory panel on constitutional matters, is expected to issue an opinion on the “foreign agents” law.

As a member of the Council of Europe since 1996 and party to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) since 1998, Russia has strict and clear obligations to respect the right to freedom of association. A 2007 recommendation by the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers states that foreign funding of nongovernmental organizations should be subject “only to the laws generally applicable to customs, foreign exchange and money laundering and those on the funding of elections and political parties.”

The list compiled and updated by Human Rights Watch is far from exhaustive, as only some of the targeted organizations are outspoken while others hope to mitigate their situation by keeping quiet, Human Rights Watch said.

The listof targeted groups consists mainly of organizations that do human rights, public outreach, or environmental work, or that in some way are critical of government practices, Human Rights Watch said. There have been some exceptions, including an organization that advocates on behalf of people living with cystic fibrosis, two hunters’ groups, and a wildlife preservation group.

President Putin has justified the law by citing the public’s right to know which groups accept foreign funding. Russia’s prosecutor general and other top officials have asserted that the law is not restrictive and that the inspection campaign was merely aimed at ensuring that organizations complied with the law. In lateApril, when Russia was scrutinized before the United Nations Human Rights Council during a periodic review of its human rights record, Russian officials told the council that the use of the term “foreign agent” was not punitive.

However, under previous regulations, all Russian groups already had to report to the authorities on foreign funding, and many make this information public on their websites and in reports. If the government sought merely to make information on foreign funding even more easily available to the public, it could have done so without invoking the label “foreign agent,” Human Rights Watch said.

“In Russian, the term ‘foreign agent’ unambiguously means ‘spy,’ and by forcing groups to wear this label the government is making them lie about who they are,” Williamson said. “It is difficult to avoid the impression that the government aims to punish, humiliate, and ultimately silence groups by tarnishing them as ‘agents’ for foreign governments.”

Some Russian officials have tried to equate the “foreign agents” law with the United States Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). The US law covers organizations and individuals that operate under direction and control of a foreign principal, but it does not apply to nongovernmental organizations that benefit from foreign funding and seek policy changes. Nor does the US law equate receiving foreign funding, in part or in whole, with being under the direction and control of a foreign principal.

Russian officials have also sought to downplay the inspection campaign, claiming that it is part of the ordinary business of regulating nongovernmental groups.

“The inspection campaign and its consequences are extraordinary, dangerous, and pushing important civil society groups to the margins of the law,” Williamson said. “The Council of Europe’s secretary general should urge Russia’s leaders to repeal the ‘foreign agents’ law, stop harassing groups with these inspections, and end this crackdown.”

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