“We actually thought we had ‘mopped up’ our website and got rid of those ‘undesirable’ hyperlinks, but we missed one,” Anya Sarang told me, chuckling ruefully. Sarang is the head of the Andrei Rylkov Foundation, a prominent Russian group working to advance responsible drug policy. This week, a court in Moscow fined the group 50,000 rubles (US$862) for involvement with an “undesirable organisation”. The charges stem from a 2011 hyperlink on the group’s website to a publication on the website of the Open Society Foundations (OSF), which Russian authorities banned two years ago.
Russia’s 2015 law on “undesirable organisations,” authorizes the prosecutor general’s office to ban from the country any foreign or international organization that it alleges undermines the country’s security, defense, or constitutional order. OSF is one of the 11 organisations, mainly American donor institutions and capacity building groups, already blacklisted.
Once designated “undesirable,” an organisation can no longer carry out any activities in Russia. Moreover, the law provides for administrative and criminal penalties for Russian groups and citizens that cooperate with “undesirables” — administrative fines for the first two violations, and then a maximum six-year prison sentence.
The law forbids Russian groups or individuals from accepting funding from “undesirables,” but otherwise does not specify what cooperation with an undesirable organisation may entail. Russian activists and lawyers thought of lots of things that could possibly qualify — from participation in events organised by “undesirables” to distribution of their materials.
But the idea that a hyperlink on your website could be considered “involvement” had not entered anyone’s mind — until it started happening. The Andrei Rylkov Foundation now finds itself in the same basket as three other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and two academic institutions fined over “undesirable” hyperlinks on their websites earlier this year. The prosecutor’s office also went after SOVA Center, a Moscow based think tank well-know known for its research on nationalism, religious freedoms, political radicalism, and counter-extremism. Their case is still pending.
“On the evening of 8 October, a courier from the prosecutor’s office came to us with a letter about an alleged violation [of the law on “undesirable organisations”], which supposedly had to do with our activity on the Internet,” Sarang said. “They wanted to speak to me the very next day, but I was traveling, so I called them and they said it’s about ‘undesirable’ hyperlinks. Our team went through the website looking for links to “undesirable organisations” — they found and deactivated a few, but missed this one. And no wonder… It’s a link in one of our articles published all the way back in 2011 to a study about risks to health in pre-trial custody, by the OFS’s health program.”
Over the next few days, with Sarang still out of town, a police officer paid several visits to the organisation’s office and to the home of its co-founder. He was looking for Sarang and stressing that the prosecutors needed to speak to her as soon as possible. The visits and repeated calls from the prosecutor’s office severely disrupted the group’s work.
Sarang’s colleagues went to the prosecutor’s office without waiting for her to return, and told the officials their website featured no links to sites of “undesirable organisations”. However, the officials managed to find that single deeply buried old link. The prosecutor’s office moved the case to trial, and the court ruling came just, a month later, on November 13.
The Andrey Rylkov Foundation will appeal the ruling, but the prospects are not encouraging, as several other groups have already lost their appeals under similar circumstances. “What’s next?” Sarang is wondering, “Will the government, for example, go after me for re-tweeting a tweet by another twitter aficionado who just happens to be working for one those ‘undesirable organisations?’” Sounds absurd, doesn’t it? But these days, nothing seems to absurd for the Kremlin in its relentless struggle to stifle independent voices.