On the night before the “foreign agents” law came into force, unknown individuals sprayed graffiti reading, “Foreign Agent! ♥ USA” on the buildings hosting the offices of three prominent NGOs in Moscow, including Memorial.

© 2012 Yulia Klimova/Memorial

Who is a foreign agent? According to official Russian rhetoric, it’s a treacherous nongovernment organization working to undermine the country’s national interests. But in fact, that often means a human rights group.

A recent example is Maximum, a regional group in Murmansk that provides psychological and legal support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) victims of violence and discrimination. On March 5, a court in Murmansk, 1,850 km north of Moscow, fined the group 300,000 rubles (approximately US $5,000) for failing to comply with the federal “foreign agents” law.

The Justice Ministry forcibly registered Maximum as foreign agent on February 4 because it receives foreign funding and engages in “political activities” such as issuing publications that recommend changes to Russia’s anti-LGBT legislation. Now the ministry is going after the group, for working without having registered itself as a foreign agent earlier.

Maximum is the second LGBT group after the Arkhangelsk-based Rakurs that the Justice Ministry added to this registry. So far, the Justice Ministry’s list of “foreign agent” NGOs counts 44 groups, only two of which registered voluntarily. Many NGOs on the list are Russia’s most revered rights groups, such as the Human Rights Center “Memorial,” Committee against Torture, Public Verdict, or Sakharov Center. All were found to be foreign agents for holding public events or engaging in advocacy -- legitimate and essential work of any rights group.

LGBT people in Russia face harassment and physical abuse because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. According to Russian LGBT rights activists, since the adoption of a law banning “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to children in 2013, attacks against LGBT people and activists have surged. Our research found that the country’s law-enforcement authorities virtually do nothing to address the attacks, and in the rare cases when they investigate and prosecute anti-LGBT crimes, they do not treat them as hate crimes. The staff of Maximum provided legal and psychological assistance to victims of such crimes, who often do not report attacks to the police out of distrust or fear of further abuse.

Maximum has launched a public appeal to help pay the burdensome fine. The activists, however, remain resolute to fight against the foreign agent label and continue their work to support victims of violence and discrimination. This should be the Russian government’s priority as well.