June 9, 2014 Update
On June 4 President Putin signed the amendments into law.
On June 9 Ministry of Justice registered five independent groups as "foreign agents".
May 24, 2014 Update
On May 23, after this news release went to press, the Duma adopted in second and third reading the amendments giving the Ministry of Justice authority to register groups against foreign agents against their will.
(Moscow) – A Moscow court has ruled against a prominent Russian human rights group that challenged a government order to register as a “foreign agents.” The ruling came several days after Russia’s lower house of parliament approved in first reading a draft law empowering the Ministry of Justice to register independent groups as “foreign agents” against their will. In the weeks before the vote, government agencies in St. Petersburg questioned and inspected several independent groups.
“Russia is tightening the noose around groups that are critical of the government, propose reforms, and promote human rights,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government seems intent on suffocating prospects for independent scrutiny.”
In spring 2013 the prosecutor’s office ordered Memorial Human Rights Center, Golos Association, and Lawyers for Constitutional Rights (JURIX) to register as “foreign agents.” The groups filed a complaint with a court challenging the order. Court hearings on the complaint had been postponed at least three times, until the May 23, 2014 ruling.
Memorial's lawyers said they will appeal this latest ruling to the Moscow City Court. If they lose, the group must either register as “foreign agent,” implying it is somehow anti-Russian, or face a range of possible sanctions, including suspension and fines. The court postponed issuing the rulings on Golos until June 3 and on Jurix until June 17, citing the need for additional documents.
Russia’s “foreign agents” law, adopted in July 2012, requires groups that accept foreign funding and engage in “political activity” to register as “foreign agents,” a term commonly understood in Russia to mean foreign spies and traitors. Not a single advocacy group has registered, and instead groups are fighting through the courts the efforts by the authorities to force them to do so. The latest amendments, if adopted, would empower the Ministry of Justice to register the groups without relying on a court ruling.
“Since these independent groups refused to submit to this absurd law, the Russian government is trying to force it on them,” Williamson said. “Instead, the government should repeal the ‘foreign agents’ law altogether.”
In late April 2014 several government agencies in St. Petersburg started a harassment campaign against a number of independent groups, echoing the nationwide government inspection campaign that took place in spring 2013.
The Interior Ministry’s St. Petersburg office questioned the leaders of several prominent local groups, including the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, the German-Russian Exchange, and Citizens’ Watch. In separate sessions that lasted about 90 minutes, officials asked about the work the groups carried out and foreign grants they received since 2012. The head of Citizens’ Watch, a group that monitors law enforcement and security agencies, told Human Rights Watch that officials refused to disclose the grounds for the questioning.
On May 6, 2014, officials from the city prosecutor’s office and Justice Ministry conducted a surprise inspection at St. Petersburg Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, a group that defends conscripts’ and soldiers’ rights. A Soldiers’ Mothers representative told Human Rights Watch that inspectors said a complaint had been made against the group, accusing it of being involved in “extremism” and “political activities.” An inspection official allegedly told the group that its statement opposing Russia’s takeover of Crimea might have prompted the complaint but refused to tell the group’s representative who filed the complaint.
The prosecutor’s office responded to the Soldiers’ Mothers group’s request for information on May 19, stating that the inspection was prompted by a complaint it had received that the group had not registered as a “foreign agent.” Officials from the prosecutor’s office demanded the Soldiers’ Mothers group submit, by May 12, financial records, publications, a list of events it had organized, and other documents.
On May 13 a similar team of officials inspected the Regional Press Institute, a local group that works on media and civil society development, and demanded a similar set of documents. During the inspection, an official said they were investigating the group because it had organized a seminar on housing and communal services in December 2013, which might be “political activity.”
The fire inspectorate also inspected the group’s office on May 15, 2014, responding to a prosecutor’s complaint. The officials requested documents on the group’s compliance with fire prevention rules and told employees that they found a teapot in an inappropriate place. However, the fire inspectorate told employees that they did not find any serious violations in the office.
“Russian authorities are using pretexts to shut down groups that seek to hold officials to account,” Williamson said. “The government should end its campaign of harassment and intimidation against independent voices.”