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Russia: Withdraw New Batch of Oppressive Laws

Rescind Bills; Repeal Abusive ‘Undesirables’ Law; Reform Extremism Laws

Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin addresses the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s Parliament, in Moscow, Russia. July 22, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

(Moscow) – A group of Russian lawmakers introduced three bills on May 4, 2021 that would add new dangerous tools to the already significant arsenal of legislative weapons for the country’s crackdown on dissenting voices, Human Rights Watch said today.

Two of the bills introduced in the State Duma, the lower chamber of parliament, would expand the impact of Russia’s law on “undesirable” organizations. The third would enable authorities to impose lengthy bans on potential candidates for Duma seats if they are associated with groups deemed “extremist” by the Russian authorities, even if they were associated with the group before it received that designation.

“These bills are a far-from-subtle attempt to deprive the Kremlin’s political opponents of legal means of political participation and to instill ever more fear into Russia’s civil society,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “For years now, and with particular ferocity in the past six months, the Russian authorities have been trying to inflict death by a thousand cuts on civil society and meaningful political opposition.”

One bill would amend the 2012 “Dima Yakovlev law” to expand the ban on participating in activities of organizations blacklisted by Russian authorities as “undesirable” beyond Russia’s borders. The bill also explicitly provides that such bans may be imposed not only on Russian nationals, but also on foreigners who are permanent residents of Russia and stateless persons.

The bill also envisages that a foreign or international organization can be designated “undesirable” if acting as “intermediaries” in the Russian authorities’ view, transferring funds or property to support “undesirables” operations. The Russian authorities can impose the designation even if the group has no other connection to Russia.

The other new bill involving “undesirables” introduces amendments to the Russian Criminal and Criminal Procedure codes to make it easier to open criminal cases on charges of affiliation with undesirable organizations. The bill separates the participation and leadership or management of such organizations into separate parts of the criminal articles and substantially reduces the threshold for criminal liability.

The authorities have been using the laws on “undesirables” to lash out against activists and the political opposition. In March, police raided the first federal forum of municipal deputies in Moscow, arresting almost 200 attendees and charging them with the administrative offense of participation in activities of “undesirable organizations.”

Under the existing “undesirables” law, criminal liability can only be invoked against a person who has previously had two or more administrative convictions in a one-year period on the same charges of involvement with an undesirable organization. This requirement would be entirely removed for the charge of “organizing” activities of an “undesirable” organization, and reduced to only one prior administrative conviction for “participation,” thus broadening the grounds for bringing charges against activists.

There have been only a few such criminal cases, all related to allegations of involvement with only one organization, the Open Russia Civic Movement, which the authorities claimed was registered in the UK and was blacklisted as “undesirable” by the Justice Ministry in 2017. Activists affiliated with the Russian movement with the same name insisted they had no affiliation with the British organization.

Anastasiya Shevchenko, the first to be indicted under such charges, spent over two years under house arrest and also learned that the police had installed a hidden camera in her bedroom. Mikhail Iosilevich, whose “misconduct” was providing his café as a space for civil society events, including guest lectures, and who denies any connection to Open Russia, has been in pretrial detention since January 2021. By the time the latest extension of his term expires on June 28, he will have spent half a year behind bars. A number of other activists have either also been convicted, indicted, or are at risk of prosecution, including Yana Antonova, who was previously convicted but could face new charges.

The explanatory notes accompanying these two bills suggest that their authors aim to increase the toxicity of the organizations the Russian authorities blacklist and to cut off Russian activists from capacity building and educational opportunities abroad offered by some of the organizations already on the list of “undesirables” or risk criminal prosecution and sanctions. The third bill seeks to ban the leaders, staff members, and supporters of organizations listed as extremist from running for parliament.

Russian counter-extremism provisions are broad and sufficiently vague to allow extensive interpretation. They have been criticized, among others, by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe for imposing “disproportionate restrictions of fundamental rights and freedoms … and infringe the principles of legality, necessity and proportionality.”

While Russian authorities have used these laws and practices for legitimate purposes to counter violent extremism, they have also used them to target individuals and organizations that pose no actual threat and are simply viewed as politically inconvenient, selectively enforcing anti-extremism measures against nonviolent people who hold critical views of the government.

The bill would impose a five-year ban on running for the Duma on the leadership or management of organizations designated as extremist and a three-year ban for their staff and supporters, defined in broad terms, including donors. The bill would also have a retroactive effect, to include anyone who was a leader or manager of such organizations up to three years before the authorities designated the group extremist and up to a year for staff members and supporters.

It is hardly a coincidence that the bills are being proposed only a few months before the September parliamentary elections. The authorities are already designating as extremist three groups affiliated with the jailed opposition politician Alexei Navalny. One of these targeted groups is the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) which gained public recognition and support though its investigations of high-level corruption. One of the group’s lawyers, Liubov Sobol, had announced her intention to run for the Duma in September and started her campaign.

“There appears to be a clear aim to isolate Russia’s civil society and force many of its activists abroad into self-imposed exile under a threat of criminal sanctions, as well as to delegitimize and punish anyone affiliated with or actively supporting Alexei Navalny,” Williamson said. “Russian authorities need to stop the attempts to drag the country behind a new Iron Curtain and start demonstrating respect for fundamental human rights and democratic values.”

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