(Moscow) – The Russian government has used a law requiring some advocacy groups to register as “foreign agents” to marginalize and silence independent groups. November 21, 2013, is one year since the law came into force.
The “foreign agents” law is at the core of the Kremlin’s 18-month crackdown on independent groups and activists, the worst period for human rights in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Human Rights Watch said.
“Courageous Russian groups have not buckled under tremendous government pressure to register as ‘foreign agents,’” said Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director at Human Rights Watch. “For months now, they have been fighting through the courts. In some cases they are winning, but these are battles they shouldn’t have to face.”
The “foreign agents” law, rammed through parliament several months after Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin, requires groups that accept foreign funding and engage in “political activities” to register as “foreign agents.” Russian authorities should repeal those provisions, Human Rights Watch said.
The term “foreign agents,” popular in Russia during the Cold War and beyond, demonizes groups in the public eye as foreign spies and traitors, Human Rights Watch said.
Beginning in March, after human rights and other groups made clear they would not comply with the registration requirement, Russian authorities began a punitive inspection campaign to identify “foreign agent” organizations and order them to register.
According to the prosecutor general’s office, which led the inspection campaign, over 1,000 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were inspected throughout the country. Dozens of groups received warnings or direct orders from the prosecutors to register as “foreign agents” within 30 days. Failure to abide by the prosecutors’ orders can result in the organizations being suspended, and their leaders can face prison terms of up to two years.
In the wake of the inspections, the Justice Ministry and various prosecutors’ offices around Russia have filed administrative cases against nine groups and an additional five administrative cases against leaders of these groups for failing to register under the “foreign agents” law. The authorities lost nine of the fourteen cases in courts and won the other five. As a result, the Justice Ministry suspended the activities of two election watchdog groups, both from the Golos network. At least three groups chose to wind up operations to avoid further repressive legal action.
Local prosecutors also brought civil law suits against three groups. The civil suit brought against the Anti-Discrimination Center (ADC) “Memorial” in St. Petersburg was nearly identical to the administrative case that the local prosecutor’s office had filed against it and lost.
“The example of ADC ‘Memorial’ demonstrates the authorities’ persistence in trying to silence certain government critics,” Lokshina said. “If they lose a case, they look for other ways to target the same group.”
Local prosecutors also filed at least 12 administrative cases against NGOs for refusing to provide documents during the inspection campaign, and have lost two of them.
At least 11 groups filed cases challenging prosecutors’ written notices ordering them to register as “foreign agents,” which the groups had received in the wake of the inspections. By late November, at least three had won their cases.
Human Rights Watch is also aware of at least three groups in various regions of Russia that succeeded in getting prosecutors’ warnings annulled by a court. In at least two more cases, prosecutors’ offices annulled their own warnings.
“It’s only as a result of their perseverance and staunch international support that several groups have won their cases,” Lokshina said. “But at what cost? Had it not been for the ‘foreign agents’ law, the time and resources groups had to spend on legal battles could have been spent on doing their work to help people in Russia.”
The “foreign agents” law contradicts Russia’s international human rights obligations to protect freedom of association and expression, and the law’s definition of political activities is so broad that it could include any organized activity relating to public life, Human Rights Watch said. Officials from the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the European Union, and other agencies have spoken out against it.
Thirteen Russian rights groups jointly filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights challenging the “foreign agents” law. The application is currently under review.
In August Russia’s ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, filed an appeal with the country’s Constitutional Court on behalf of four organizations challenging warnings from the prosecutors’ offices to register and fines that the groups had incurred for failing to register. Two other groups filed separate petitions with the Constitutional Court challenging the “foreign agents” measure’s compliance with the Russian constitution.
In July and again in September President Putin pledged to have the “foreign agents” law revised but to date, the law remains unchanged.
Sustained international pressure on the Kremlin to repeal the provisions requiring organizations that accept foreign funding and engage in “political activities” to register as “foreign agents” is crucial for the survival of Russia’s independent groups, Human Rights Watch said. Some observers have attributed Putin’s pledge to the spotlight the upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi is shining on Russia’s abusive practices.
“There is a major window of opportunity that Russia’s international partners should not miss,” Lokshina said. “Now is the time to urge President Putin to repeal the abusive provisions in the ‘foreign agents’ law once and for all.”