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(Moscow) – The Russian government’s crackdown on public debate and independent groups took a more sinister turn in 2015, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2016. The authorities used existing and new laws to harass dozens of independent groups, in some cases effectively forcing them to shut down. The government took aggressive actions against its critics and moved to further curtail free expression, including online.

“The government portrays human rights defenders as traitors paid by foreign masters to promote an anti-Russian agenda,” said Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director at Human Rights Watch. “The Kremlin is encouraging an atmosphere of anti-Western hysteria, witch hunts, and intimidation to silence critics.”

On the night before the infamous “foreign agents” law came into force back in 2012, 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

In the 659-page World Report 2016, its 26th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that the spread of terrorist attacks beyond the Middle East and the huge flows of refugees spawned by repression and conflict led many governments to curtail rights in misguided efforts to protect their security. At the same time, authoritarian governments throughout the world, fearful of peaceful dissent that is often magnified by social media, embarked on the most intense crackdown on independent groups in recent times.

By the end of 2014, authorities had used a 2012 law targeting advocacy groups that accept foreign funding to label more than 100 nongovernmental organizations as “foreign agents,” including the country’s leading rights groups, and slapped many with hefty fines. Over a dozen organizations opted to close rather than bear the stigmatizing label.

In November 2015, the Justice Ministry accused one of Russia’s most outspoken and prominent human rights groups, the Memorial Human Rights Center, of undermining the country’s “constitutional rule,” among other allegations that could result in criminal charges against Memorial’s leadership. The action also sends a chilling signal to other groups on the “foreign agents” list.

In March, parliament adopted a law on “undesirable foreign organizations” that authorizes the extrajudicial banning of foreign groups that allegedly undermine Russia’s security, defense, or constitutional order. Russians who maintain ties with “undesirables” or share their materials with Russian audiences face penalties, including prison terms.

The government stepped up its suppression of online communications and authorities prosecuted several cases against those who voiced online criticism of Russia’s occupation of Crimea. A law that went into effect in September bans the storage of Russian Internet users’ personal data on foreign servers and requires foreign sites that collect such data to store it within Russia. International social networking sites, among others, could be blocked if they don’t comply.

Russia provided military and financial assistance to anti-government forces in eastern Ukraine but made no tangible attempts to rein in abuses by such forces. In August, a military court, in an apparent political move, found Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker, and Olexander Kolchenko, a Ukrainian activist, guilty of operating an anti-Russian “terrorist organization” in Crimea, sentencing them to long prison terms. The trial of Nadezhda Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot, on charges of premeditated murder in connection with the deaths of two Russian journalists in a shelling attack in eastern Ukraine in 2014 was deeply problematic.

The confrontation between Islamist insurgents and law enforcement agencies in the North Caucasus was fraught with human rights abuses. In Dagestan, police put Salafi Muslims on special watch lists, repeatedly detaining them and in some cases fabricating criminal cases against them. Police also raided Salafi mosques across Dagestan and conducted numerous abusive special operations.

The year was also particularly dire for human rights defenders, independent journalists, and lawyers in the North Caucasus. In Dagestan, unidentified men viciously beat a local human rights lawyer. Pro-government thugs destroyed the office of the Joint Mobile Group of Human Rights Defenders in Chechnya twice. In Ingushetia, security accused a leading local activist of anti-Russian sabotage.

Authorities have used use the country’s anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) “propaganda” law to disrupt pro-LGBT rights events and harass LGBT people and their supporters. But the authorities largely failed to prosecute homophobic and transphobic violence.

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