(Moscow) - Russia’s Investigative Committee has interrogated a human rights activist for allegedly failing to comply with the “foreign agents” law, Human Rights Watch said today. If an investigation is opened against the activist, Valentina Cherevatenko, it would be the first criminal case opened under the 2012 law. The authorities should immediately stop harassing Cherevatenko for her work.

“The interrogation of Valentina Cherevatenko could be a watershed in the witch hunt against independent groups,” said Hugh Williamson. “A criminal investigation into failing to comply with the notorious ‘foreign agents’ law would no doubt stifle human rights work in Russia even further.”

The Investigative Committee, Russia’s criminal investigation service, summoned Cherevatenko for questioning on May 6 and 10, 2016 as part of a preliminary inquiry into alleged evasion of obligations set out in the “foreign agents” law.

Russia’s 2012 “foreign agents” law requires groups that accept foreign funding and carry out any of a wide range of vaguely defined “political activities” to register as foreign agents – a term that in Russian unambiguously connotes “traitor” or “spy.” The legislation created a new offense under article 330.1 of the Russian Criminal Code, which provides that “malicious evasion of the duty to file the documents required for inclusion in the register of nonprofit organizations performing the functions of a foreign agent,” is punishable by up to two years in prison.

Cherevatenko is chair of the Coordination Council and on the Board of two human rights organizations – Women of the Don Union and Women of the Don Foundation for Civil Society Development. Both groups carry out programs on human rights education, peace building, and humanitarian relief in Russia’s North Caucasus. In 2014, the Justice Ministry designated Women of the Don Union as a “foreign agent,” and designated the Women of the Don Foundation a “foreign agent,” in 2015.

Both groups challenged the “foreign agent” label in court, but to date unsuccessfully. In 2014, while its appeals were pending, the Justice Ministry registered Women of the Don Union as a “foreign agent” under the law without the group’s consent.

Both groups submitted additional reports and audit statements and informed the public that they had been listed as “foreign agents,” as required under the law. The union paid all administrative fines imposed by the courts, and the foundation had applied for and received an extension. On February 29, the ministry officially removed Women of the Don Union from its list of foreign agents, stating that the group no longer “carried out the functions of a foreign agent.”

To date no investigation under article 330.1 has been opened against any activist for alleged “malicious evasion” of obligations under the “foreign agents” law although the Justice Ministry has forcibly designated dozens of groups as foreign agents.

Many international organizations criticized the “foreign agents” law and condemned Russia especially for the criminal offense it created. The European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission), an expert advisory body of the Council of Europe, in its opinion on Russia's "foreign agents" law, said that compliance with international standards means that “[s]evere criminal sanctions should only be applied in case of serious wrongdoing and should always be proportional to this wrongdoing.”

In its official comment on the “foreign agents” law published just before it was adopted, Russia’s Supreme Court criticized article 330.1 because the offense did not contain an element of “socially dangerous consequences [that should] distinguish a criminal act from an administrative offense.” The court also noted that “malicious” is a subjective term, and its lack of legal definition “may cause problems for those responsible for enforcing the law in terms of objective assessment of the act in question and its degree of public danger.” Russia’s parliament retained the provision despite the court’s comments, which under Russian laws are treated as recommendations.

“Bringing criminal charges under the ‘foreign agents’ law would seriously ratchet up the already enormous pressure on legitimate human rights work in Russia,” Williamson said. “Not only should the authorities halt any plans to go down that route, the government should repeal this harmful law once and for all and create a safe environment for human rights defenders in the country.”