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Pavel Chikov, former head of Agora Human Rights Association. Moscow 2014. © 2014 Private

(Moscow) – A court order to close a leading rights group in Russia is a new low in the government’s vicious crackdown on independent groups. On February 10, 2016, the regional court of Tatarstan issued a ruling to dissolve the Agora Human Rights Association, upholding an administrative suit filed by the Justice Ministry. Agora will appeal to Russia’s Supreme Court.

Agora, a network of lawyers and activists, is widely known for defending civil and political activists across the country. Agora’s lawyers have represented victims of political prosecution in numerous high profile court cases, including the case against the feminist punk group Pussy Riot; the criminal prosecution of Russia’s leading opposition politician, Alexei Navalny; and the recent infamous “terrorism” case against a Ukrainian filmmaker from Crimea, Oleg Sentsov, and his alleged accomplice, the Crimean activist Olexander Kolchenko.

“There is little doubt that Russian authorities want to paralyze Agora’s human rights work and are using the judicial system to accomplish this,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “For years, the government has been demonizing human rights groups and stifling them with bureaucracy. Now it’s starting to shut them down.”

Agora was founded in 2005 by three prominent Russian human rights groups from the Volga Federal district of Russia. According to the former head of Agora, Pavel Chikov, Agora’s lawyers are currently working on more than 300 human rights cases across Russia.

The Justice Ministry filed suit against Agora in January 2016, alleging that the group was in breach of Russian legislation on nongovernmental organizations by engaging in “political activities” and carrying out work beyond its statutory objectives, and that it did not fully comply with Russian tax regulations. Prior to the suit, the organization had faced numerous intrusive inspections by Justice Ministry officials, prosecutors, and tax authorities.

The allegations of involvement in “political activities” appear to be at the core of the government’s case. It referred in its suit to a number of opinion articles and other materials published by Agora’s activists. This list includes several pieces by Pavel Chikov, a member of Russia’s Presidential Human Rights Council, that were featured on the council’s official website. The ministry contended that those articles, which aimed to “influence public opinion” and “foster critical attitude toward the government,” had not been labelled as produced by a “foreign agent” organization.

Under Russia’s profoundly flawed “foreign agents” law, the government can brand nongovernmental groups as “foreign agents” – which in Russia unambiguously means “traitor” if they engage in “political activity” while receiving foreign funding. Groups designated as “foreign agents” are required to publicly identify themselves as such.

The 2012 “foreign agents” law defines “political activity” as actions aimed at influencing the government or public opinion. Human Rights Watch has said that Russian authorities have been using this broad and vague definition to cover all aspects of advocacy and human rights work.

When the government forcibly registered Agora as a “foreign agent” in 2014, the organization stopped accepting foreign funding and asked the Justice Ministry to remove it from the “foreign agents” register. The ministry refused, despite the fact that the “foreign agents” registration requirement is only applicable to foreign-funded organizations, and then filed the suit to dissolve the group in early 2016.

The “foreign agents” law runs contrary to Russia’s international human rights obligations, and its aggressive, sweeping implementation has been at the center of the Russian government’s campaign to silence independent voices, Human Rights Watch said.

“Russia should drop the ‘foreign agents’ law,” Williamson said. “International organizations and leading democratic governments should renew their calls on the Kremlin to repeal this law and to stop the crackdown on independent voices.”

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