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(Moscow) – The upper chamber of Russia’s parliament is working on new amendments to force advocacy groups to register as “foreign agents,” Human Rights Watch said today. Under the new proposal, the Justice Ministry could register groups as “foreign agents” without their consent.

The proposal comes amid an intense government crackdown on freedom of expression. A draft law would ban publication of “inaccurate” information about the Russian government and military. New proposals would further restrict media freedom online. Several opposition websites have recently been blocked and hundreds of peaceful protesters have been detained.

“For two years now, the ‘foreign agents’ law has been at the core of Russia’s unprecedented crackdown on independent groups and activists,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “If it becomes law, this new proposal would take the crackdown to a new, dire level.”

On March 27, 2014, at a meeting between President Vladimir Putin and the leadership of the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament, the chair of the chamber’s committee on constitutional law, Andrei Klishas, announced that the upper chamber was working on the amendments to the legislation on nongovernmental organizations. He said the amendments were intended to make sure that all groups that receive foreign funding and engage in “political activities” publicly identify themselves as “foreign agents.”

A 2012 law requires groups receiving foreign funding and conducting broadly defined “political activity” to register as “foreign agents,” effectively demonizing them as foreign spies. Authorities define as “political” such work as urging legal and policy reforms, raising awareness, and assisting victims of abuse.

Not a single advocacy group has registered as a “foreign agent,” and instead groups are fighting through the courts the efforts by the authorities to force them to register. Thirteen Russian rights groups also have jointly filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights challenging the “foreign agents” law as violating freedom of association. The case is under review.

When explaining the planned amendments to the president, Klishas characterized foreign-funded human rights groups as subversive organizations that refuse to register as “foreign agents” despite being engaged in “political activities” and promoting an allegedly foreign agenda. Putin said in response that, “No loopholes should be left for those who do not protect the interests of Russian citizens but rather protect the interests of foreign states inside Russia.” Authorizing the Ministry of Justice to register groups as “foreign agents” without their consent would apparently close that “loophole.”

“Russian advocacy groups have put up a united front in resisting the government’s efforts to make them brand themselves as spies and traitors,” Williamson said. “So now the idea is for the government to do the disgraceful branding itself.”

Last year, in the face of strong criticism of the “foreign agents” law by international and domestic human rights bodies, Putin repeatedly promised to amend the law.

“It’s clear now that the long-awaited amendments will be not about repealing abusive provisions, but rather about toughening them,” Williamson said.

With President’s Putin evident encouragement, Klishas also proposed to introduce more restrictions on freedom of information online and to toughen sanctions, possibly including criminal sanctions, against those who repeatedly receive administrative citations for taking part in unauthorized rallies.  

“Russia’s authorities should stop their attack on freedom of expression,” Williamson said. “These proposals would take Russia even farther astray of its international human rights obligations.”  

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