Prosecutor General's Office of the Russian Federation, Moscow, 2010.

© REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin
(Berlin) – The Russian government has intensified enforcement of the country’s repressive legislation on foreign “undesirable” organizations to intimidate Russian nationals and groups, Human Rights Watch said today. Officials are penalizing Russian groups for hyperlinks on their websites to materials on the websites of “undesirable” foreign organizations.

The law on “undesirable organizations,” adopted in 2015, authorizes the prosecutor general’s office to ban from the country any foreign or international organization that it perceives as harming Russia’s security, and sets out penalties for Russian citizens and organizations for unspecified involvement with them. Punishments range from administrative fines to imprisonment.

“From the start, it seemed clear that the true target of the “undesirables” law would be Russian groups and citizens,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Now, we’re seeing that the authorities are using the law, quite absurdly, to penalize Russian groups for supposed involvement with the ‘undesirables.’”

Since 2015, Russian authorities have blacklisted as “undesirable” 11 organizations, most of them American.

The law prohibits Russians from accepting financial support from foreign “undesirable organizations” and bans dissemination of their materials, but otherwise does not specify what constitutes “involvement” with “undesirables.” Human Rights Watch recently learned that since spring 2016, the government had filed charges against at least 11 Russian organizations for their supposed “participation in the activities of undesirable organizations,” eight of them since June 2017.

In all 11 cases, the charges stemmed from hyperlinks to websites of foreign “undesirables” on the websites of the targeted Russian organizations that had been posted before the foreign organizations were banned. Five of the Russian organizations are based in Samara region, three in Moscow, and one each in Bashkortostan, Volgograd, and Yaroslavl.

Ten of the groups lost their cases in court despite their objections to prosecutors’ assertions that linking to a website amounted to inviting Russian users to read these materials, and therefore qualified as “participation in the activities” of the banned organization. The case of one remaining group is pending.

Human Rights Watch examined charge sheets and/or court rulings in all 11 cases, which are available in the public domain on court websites and in jurisprudence databases. Human Rights Watch also interviewed representatives of two of the affected organizations and a human rights lawyer working on one of the cases.

In all cases, the hyperlinks were posted in the years before the law’s adoption. Nothing in the law indicates that hyperlinks would be viewed as “participation in the activities” of “undesirables.” In at least two cases, after prosecutors informed the groups about the issue with the links, staff immediately sifted through their websites to remove links to the banned organizations, but the prosecutors still moved the cases to court.

Only three of the 11 groups affected – SOVA Center and the Andrey Rylkov Foundation, both in Moscow, and the Yaroslavl-based Social Partnerships Center – discussed their cases with the media. All three, and another targeted organization, the Moscow-based Open Institute of Public Health, work on policy issues. The others include academic institutions, a business club, and other non-policy-oriented groups.

Between June and November 2017, Russian courts also fined at least two activists, one in Krasnodar, 15,000 rubles (US$260), and one in Tula, 1,000 rubles (US$17), for their supposed connections to Open Russia, one of the banned “undesirable” organizations. Open Russia is affiliated with the exiled oil tycoon and former political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The charges stemmed from their participation in a country-wide protest under the slogan “enough is enough,” which Open Russia had initiated. Open Russia’s two legal entities are registered in the United Kingdom and Russian authorities banned both of them as “undesirable” in April this year.

The Russian law on foreign “undesirable” organizations violates the rights to freedom of expression and association set out in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. Russia is a state party to both treaties.

The government uses the law on “undesirable organizations” to harass and intimidate, punish critics, and make others wary of having any connections with foreign organizations, Human Rights Watch said. Russia’s international partners should urge the authorities to repeal the law as incompatible with freedom of expression.

“The authorities are casting a wide net, penalizing groups that aren’t even critical of the authorities for something they could not imagine would constitute an offense under a draconian and deliberately vague law, and for actions that obviously have nothing to do with Russian state security,” Williamson said. “It is not too late for the government to pull back from this brink of absurdity, repeal the law, and stop targeting Russian groups and citizens.”

Russia’s Law on ‘Undesirable Organizations’

The law on “undesirable organizations,” adopted by Russia’s parliament in May 2015, authorizes the prosecutor general’s office to ban from the country any foreign or international organization that allegedly undermines Russia’s security, defense, or constitutional order. Once designated “undesirable,” an organization can no longer arrange or participate in any activities in Russia. Its representatives and materials also become effectively banned from the country.

The law provides for administrative and criminal sanctions for Russian organizations and nationals that participate in the activities of “undesirable organizations.” Initial violations are punishable by a fine of up to 15,000 rubles (approximately US$250) for individuals, 50,000 rubles (US$845) for officials, and up to 100,000 rubles (US$1,690) for the organizations. Russian nationals sanctioned twice in a year risk criminal prosecution, with fines of up to 500,000 rubles (US$8,500), restrictions on activities and movement, or a maximum six-year prison sentence.

The European Commission for Democracy Through Law (the Venice Commission) found that the law on “undesirable organizations” interferes with freedom of expression and should be significantly amended.

Organizations Listed as ‘Undesirable’

Several months after the law’s adoption, the prosecutor general blacklisted the National Endowment for Democracy and Open Society Foundations, both long-term donors for leading Russian civil society groups. The blacklist has been expanding gradually, and currently includes 11 groups, mainly American donor institutions and capacity-building organizations. Leading Russian nongovernmental groups had come to rely on these organizations for financial support. As a result of the blacklisting, many Russian groups have faced a sizable funding gap.

The other organizations blacklisted to date are: Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation, United States-Russia Foundation for Economic Advancement and the Rule of Law, National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, International Republican Institute, Media Development Investment Fund, Open Russia, Institute of Modern Russia, Open Russia Civic Movement, and the Black Sea Trust.

Enforcement Chronology

The law forbids funding from “undesirable” organizations and prohibits their materials from being disseminated, but otherwise does not specify what “participating in the activities of” an “undesirable” organization may entail. The first instance known to Human Rights Watch of enforcement against a Russian organization was in April 2016, when prosecutors in Samara targeted an online information platform that connects local startups. The outlet had provided a hyperlink on its social media page to the website of the US-Russia Foundation for Economic Advancement and the Rule of Law.

Then, in June and August 2016, the prosecutor’s office went after two other academic institutions in the Samara region for hyperlinks to websites of two “undesirable” American foundations in the sections of their respective websites dealing with research grants and fellowship opportunities. The links had been posted before those foundations had been banned.

In all three cases, local courts found the organizations in violation of Article 20.33 of Russia’s Code of Administrative Offenses, which prohibits participation in activities of foreign organizations designated “undesirable.” The two academic institutions did not attempt to contest the fines; the information platform appealed and lost. All three refrained from drawing public attention to their cases. There was no media coverage and no awareness among Russian groups that the law had been enforced in this manner.

Between June and November 2017, Russian courts found several more individuals, institutes, and organizations in violation. They included at least two activists – one in Krasnodar and one in Tula – both targeted for an alleged link to banned Open Russia; one more academic institution in the Samara region; a professional training center in the Bashkortostan region; a public opinion and marketing research center in Volgograd; a business club in Tolyatti (a large town in the Samara region); a resource center for nonprofit initiatives in Yaroslavl; and two prominent independent groups in Moscow.

In September, the prosecutor’s office also charged a prominent Moscow-based think tank with the same offense. That case is pending. In all the cases Human Rights Watch has identified, the alleged infractions against Russian groups stemmed from hyperlinks on their websites to websites of “undesirable” organizations.

Selected Cases

Regional Innovation Center, Samara

On April 26, 2016, a Samara district court imposed a 50,000-ruble (US$838) fine on the Regional Innovation Center, a nonprofit partnership that runs a website connecting startups and young entrepreneurs in Samara region. The court cited a link to the US-Russia Foundation for Economic Advancement and the Rule of Law that was found on the center’s VKontakte social media page. The court refused to take into consideration that the post was made in August 2013, more than two years before the organization was declared “undesirable” in December 2015, saying that the online resources found under this link can be “freely accessed by an unrestricted group of people.”

The center appealed, saying that the supposed offense was negligible, and that posting a hyperlink could not be qualified as an act of storage or distribution since that website was freely accessible in any case. The appellate court ruled the center’s appeal inadmissible and pronounced its social media post a “threat to the Russian Federation’s constitutional basis, its defense capability or state security.” The center appealed again in October 2017, but the court upheld the fine.

Open Institute of Public Health, Moscow

On June 30, 2017, a district court in Moscow found the Open Institute of Public Health, an independent nongovernmental organization working to advance the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS, in violation of the law on “undesirable organizations.” The deputy Moscow city prosecutor opened the case over a hyperlink on the organization’s website that links to Open Society Foundations’ website. The institute was fined 50,000 rubles (US$838) for participating in the activities of an “undesirable” organization by means of “providing access” for Russian users to the Open Society Foundation’s online resources.

The court did not respond to the defense argument that the link had been posted 10 years earlier, long before the law entered into force. The court also did not perceive as relevant the fact that the institute removed the link from its website the day after the prosecutor’s office informed it about the alleged violation. The judge also rejected the arguments by the head of the organization that the group did not receive funding from Open Society Foundations and did not cooperate with the group in any way.

Rotary Club, Tolyatti

On August 15, 2017, a district court in Tolyatti found the Rotary Club of Tolyatti in violation of the law for “storage and distribution” of information materials of the National Endowment for Democracy. Publicly available court documents show the case was built around a September 2011 e-bulletin posted to the club’s website by the Rotary Club that included two links to a National Endowment for Democracy fellowship program. The court fined the Rotary Club 50,000 rubles (US$838). The organization paid the fine.

SOVA Center, Moscow

On September 7, 2017, the Moscow city prosecutor’s office charged the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis for involvement in activities of an “undesirable” foreign organization. SOVA is a Russian think tank known for its research on nationalism, religious freedom, and political radicalism and that monitors the Russian authorities’ abuse of vague and overly broad anti-extremism legislation. Its director, Alexander Verkhovsky, is a member of President Vladimir Putin’s Human Rights Council.

Officials from the prosecutor’s office told Verkhovsky that the charges stemmed from hyperlinks on SOVA’s website to sites of the National Endowment for Democracy and Open Society Foundations, which had in the past provided funding for the center’s work. The links had been posted to the site’s page, “Our Donors,” which had been created in 2003.

SOVA immediately deactivated the links and presented the prosecutor’s office with a screenshot to prove it. The officials, however, argued that the violation had already taken place and moved the case to court. Verkhovsky told Human Rights Watch that the prosecutors could not establish when the links had been posted, and the SOVA team did not have that information either, though it had evidently happened years ago. Verkhovsky also said that because no other affected organization had apparently spoken up by the time it was contacted by the prosecutor’s office, he thought SOVA was the first Russian group targeted under the law. He said he was genuinely surprised that mere hyperlinks, not to mention hyperlinks that had been posted years before the law’s adoption, could be viewed by the authorities as “participation in the activities of an undesirable organization.”

On September 15, the court sent the case back to the prosecutor’s office saying that the circumstances of the alleged violations had not been fully substantiated. The prosecutor’s office appealed to a higher instance court, and on November 21 the higher instance court upheld the appeal and sent the case to the first instance court for review of the merits. The case is pending.

Social Partnership Center, Yaroslavl

On October 9, a district court in Yaroslavl found that Social Partnership Center, a resource center for local nonprofit initiatives, was involved in “participation in the activities of an undesirable organization” through public distribution of its materials and issued a 50,000-ruble (US$838) fine. The case stemmed from charges brought by the local prosecutor’s office in September over a hyperlink to the National Endowment for Democracy’s website on the center’s website. The organization said that they could not have known that a hyperlink could be viewed as distribution of materials, that the link had been “buried in the archives” for many years, and that it had not had any connection with the National Endowment for Democracy for a decade. The court did not take those arguments into account.

Andrei Rylkov Foundation, Moscow

On November 18, a Moscow district court issued a 50,000-ruble (US$838) fine to the Andrei Rylkov Foundation, a prominent group advancing responsible drug policy, because of a hyperlink in an article on its website to a study by the Open Society Foundations’ health program dealing with health issues in pretrial detention facilities. The article had been published on the Andrei Rylkov Foundation’s website in 2011.

The organization’s director, Anna Sarang, told Human Rights Watch that on October 8 a courier from the prosecutor’s office came to the office with a letter about an alleged violation of the law on “undesirable organizations” pertaining to their activity on the internet. The prosecutor’s office demanded to see Sarang the next morning, but she was traveling and called them on the phone instead. An official told her that the administrative violation had to do with hyperlinks on the organization’s website to the website of an “undesirable” organization. The foundation staff immediately went through the website and found and deactivated several links.

Over the next few days, while Sarang was still traveling, a police officer paid several visits to the foundation’s office and to the home of its co-founder. He said he was looking for Sarang and 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 officials their website featured no links to sites of “undesirable” organizations. However, the officials found the 2011 hyperlink that the group had missed.

The foundation is appealing the ruling.

New Restrictive Legislation

On November 25, Putin signed a law that would allow for extrajudicial blocking of websites that distribute “information materials of undesirable organizations.” The law authorizes the prosecutor general’s office to have Roskomnadzor, the government’s media and communications watchdog, extrajudicially restrict access to any online source that distributes such information. The bill was part of a package of legislative amendments that also authorizes the government to order foreign media and foreign organizations distributing information to broad audiences to register as “foreign agents.”