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Combating Domestic Violence is Dangerous Work in Russia

Another Women’s Rights Group Could Be Labeled a “Foreign Agent”

The staff of center, an awareness-raising group that provides assistance to domestic violence survivors.   © 2020

In Russia, working to prevent and combat domestic violence can be considered a “political activity.” And that means risking state harassment and intimidation.

The authorities are now targeting center, an awareness-raising group that assists domestic violence survivors. The group’s director, Anna Rivina, told me that earlier this month the Justice Ministry notified of an unscheduled inspection, prompted by an anonymous tip from a “concerned citizen.” Two days ago, the ministry clarified that the reason for the inspection was the center’s alleged failure to register as a “foreign agent.”

In the context of Russian authorities’ ongoing battle against civil society groups, such news can only be viewed as menacing.

Russian authorities have long used the restrictive “foreign agents” law against independent groups that accept foreign funding and engage in public advocacy, to discredit civil society organizations as “traitors” acting in foreign interests.

Anna Rivina, head of center, an awareness-raising group that provides assistance to domestic violence survivors.  © 2020

The current “foreign agents” registry includes 76 groups. Many of them work on human rights, the environment, LGBT issues, health issues, and domestic violence.

Cases of horrendous, and often deadly, domestic violence are regularly reported in Russia, while the state response remains consistently weak. The law does not recognize domestic violence as a stand-alone offense, and police often refuse to investigate or even respond to complaints. The authorities remain indifferent to criticism, insisting that the issue is “a family matter,” while civil society groups like fill the gaps to help protect victims. Government action against such groups can have a chilling effect, deterring survivors from coming to them for potentially life-saving services.

Instead of supporting such groups, the government sometimes chooses to intimidate them.

“ANNA” Centre, a leading Russian women’s rights group, was the first among the groups working on domestic violence to be designated a “foreign agent,” in 2016. 

In addition to making groups’ everyday work very difficult, under the “foreign agents’” law criminal charges can be brought against group leaders and individual members. Several draft laws introduced in parliament in November 2020, if adopted, would further expand these draconian restrictions, including by enabling the authorities to extrajudicially block any program of a ‘foreign agent group’.

Activists I know in Russia joke bitterly that the foreign agents’ registry is a “list of honor,” an indication that their work is really effective.

It’s not too late for the ministry to stop the harassing inspection against Its work deserves authorities’ support.

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