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(Moscow) – A court in St. Petersburg has ruled that a leading Russian human rights group must register as a “foreign agent” organization. Anti-Discrimination Center (ADC) “Memorial,”a prominent Russian group that assists victims of xenophobic violence and discrimination, is the second independent group ordered to register as a result of a civil suit brought by prosecutors.

The court delivered the ruling on December 12, 2013, Constitution Day in Russia.

“The court ruling against ADC ‘Memorial’ was a jarring note as Russia was celebrating the 20th anniversary of the adoption of its constitution,” said Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director at Human Rights Watch. “The decision against Memorial is a blow to the rights to freedom of association and expression that the constitution guarantees.”

The Leninsky District Court of St. Petersburg found in favor of a local prosecutor’s office in the civil suit against ADC “Memorial.” The group’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that it will appeal the ruling within a month.

If ADC “Memorial” loses all appeals,the group will have two weeks after the ruling goes into effect to register as a “foreign agent.” If it fails to register, ADC’s director could risk criminal prosecution that could lead to up to two years in prison.

Two weeks earlier, a court in Saratov, 725 kilometers southeast of Moscow, issued a similar ruling in a civil suit against the Center for Social Policy and Gender Studies, a local independent research organization. Сivil suits brought by prosecutors are pending against Coming Out, a group that promotes the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in St. Petersburg, and Women of the Don, a group in Novocherkassk.

Amendments to Russia’s laws regulating nongovernmental organizations, adopted in July 2012, require any organization receiving foreign funding and engaging in “political activities” to register as a “foreign agent” and identify itself as such in all publications.

Russia’s civil procedure code allows the prosecutors’ offices to file civil suits to protect the rights, freedoms, and lawful interests of, among others, “undefined groups of persons or interests of the Russian Federation.”

A district prosecutor’s office in St. Petersburg filed the suit against ADC “Memorial” on July 12, 2013. The prosecutors claimed that by persistently refusing to register as “foreign agent,” the group was misleading the public about its work. The suit asked the court to order the group to register as a “foreign agent.”

The prosecutor’s office specifically citedthe group’s report, “Roma, Migrants, Activists: Victims of Police Abuse.” This report, which was in fact a submission to the United Nations Committee Against Torture (CAT) to provide background for the committee’s regular review of Russia’s compliance with the CAT, had been published on November 9, 2012, two weeks before the “foreign agents” law came into force. The prosecutor’s suit, which the court accepted on December 12, 2013, contended that the report’s criticism of police practices “dishonors police officers and damages their public image” and that the report constituted political activity because it aimed to influence public opinion. 

The same prosecutor’s office had originally filed a practically identical administrative law case against ADC “Memorial” in April but lost that case in the courts.

“The prosecutors should have stopped with the final ruling in the administrative case, but instead, they have persisted in their attempts to silence an organization that acts as an important check on the government,” Lokshina said.

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.

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