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(Moscow) – A court in southern Russia has ruled that a leading local human rights group must register as a “foreign agent” organization, Human Rights Watch said today. Women of the Don, a group that works on peacebuilding and human rights education, is the third independent group ordered to register as the result of a civil suit brought by prosecutors.

The city court of Novocherkassk, 1,050 kilometers southwest of Moscow, delivered the ruling on May 14, 2014. In late 2013, other courts issued similar rulings against Anti-Discrimination Centre (ADC) “Memorial,” a prominent human rights organization in St. Petersburg, and the Center for Social Policy and Gender Studies, an independent research organization in Saratov. ADC “Memorial” officially closed in April 2014 to avoid registering as a “foreign agent.”

“Russian prosecutors are waging a war of attrition on independent rights groups,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “They are forcing groups either to shut down or allow themselves to be branded spies and traitors.”

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. 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.

The ruling against Women of the Don derives from a suit filed by the city prosecutor’s office in Novocherkassk in September 2013. Russia’s civil procedure code allows the prosecutor’s office 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.”

The Novocherkassk prosecutors found evidence of “political activity” in Women of the Don’s criticism of police practices, its roundtables on police reform, its media interviews, and its online publications, including the annual report on its activities to Russia’s Justice Ministry, which the organization posts to its website, as required by Russian law. The court accepted the prosecutors’ arguments.

“We see this ruling against Women of the Don as another example of political manipulation of justice in Russia,” Williamson said. “There’s no doubt the government introduced this law so it could silence its critics.”

Prosecutors first targeted Women of the Don in March 2013, during Russia’s nationwide campaign of government inspections of nongovernmental groups. Nine officials from the prosecutor’s office and five other government agencies inspected Women of the Don, demanding, among other things, employees’ immunization records and proof that employees had undergone health exams. The officials also inspected the building’s ventilation system, computer software, the organization’s financial documents and labor contracts, and the organization’s library – to check for the alleged presence of extremist publications.

Women of the Don will have two weeks to register as a “foreign agent” organization once the court verdict enters into force. If the group fails to register, its leader could risk criminal prosecution under the terms of the “foreign agents” law that could lead to a prison term of up to two years. The group’s lawyers told Human Rights Watch they will appeal the verdict. If Women of the Don loses the appeal, the organization will join the thirteen prominent Russian rights groups challenging the law on “foreign agents” in the European Court of Human Rights, the lawyers said. The case is under review.

In April 2014, in response to complaints from several affected groups, Russia’s Constitutional Court issued a ruling upholding the “foreign agents” law. The court asserted that there were no legal or constitutional grounds for contending that the term “foreign agent” has negative connotations from the Soviet era and that, therefore, its use was “not intended to persecute or discredit” groups. The court also found that the “foreign agent” designation was in the public interest and the interest of state sovereignty.

“The Constitutional Court’s ruling was a big disappointment,” Williamson said. “We hope that Russian rights groups will find justice in the European Court, as the law on ‘foreign agents’ clearly violates the right to freedom of association.”

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