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FILE: A Russian state flag waves on top of a hammer and sickle at the State Duma, lower parliament chamber, headquarters in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017 © AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

(Berlin) – Russia’s lower house of parliament has adopted a bill prohibiting collaboration with unregistered foreign nongovernmental organizations, and severely limiting civic space, Human Rights Watch said today. If approved by the parliament’s upper house and signed by the president, the legislation will severely limit the right to freedom of association protected under international human rights law.

Under the proposed amendments to the Code of Administrative Offenses and the Criminal Code, which introduce administrative and criminal sanctions, anyone participating in the activities of an unregistered foreign nongovernmental organization in Russia will face a fine of up to 5,000 RUB (US$55) for the first offense. Three offenses within a year will result in criminal prosecution and up to two years in prison. Organizing the activities of an unregistered foreign group will be punishable with up to three years in prison. The bill would also allow the authorities to deport foreign nationals from Russia over non-compliance.

“The legislation to ban collaboration with independent foreign organizations is another major step in the government’s campaign to eviscerate civil society,” said Tanya Lokshina, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It aims to further isolate Russian activists from their international colleagues and leave them without support in an increasingly hostile environment.”

In recent years, scores of Russian journalists, human rights defenders, and civic activists have fled the country for fear of politically motivated criminal prosecution. The exodus has become massive since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the adoption of draconian war censorship laws. However, many chose to stay in the country despite great personal risk and to continue their work, including in collaboration with foreign partners whose registration had been withdrawn by the authorities.

One of the ban’s co-sponsors, Sergey Leonov of the Liberal Democratic party had spelled out that the objective behind the new legislation was to counter “subversive” work of foreign groups against Russia’s interests.

On April 8, 2022, the Justice Ministry revoked the registration of Human Rights Watch, which had maintained an office in Russia for 30 years, along with Amnesty International and 13 other foreign nongovernmental organizations and foundations. In a news release announcing the move, the ministry vaguely referred to violations of Russian law.

The new ban builds on the 2015 law on “undesirable organizations,” which gives the prosecutor general unfettered authority to ban foreign organizations deemed a threat to Russia’s constitutional order or security. The list of “undesirables” currently includes 93 organizations. Transparency International, Greenpeace International, and Human Rights House Foundation are some of the more recent additions. Engagement with an “undesirable” foreign organization is punishable by a fine of up to 15,000 RUB (US$166) for the first offense and up to four years in prison for a repeat offense. Leading an “undesirable” organization is punishable by up to six years in prison.

Three Russian activists have already been sentenced to prison terms over alleged violations of the law on “undesirables.” In July 2022, a court in Krasnodar sentenced Andrey Pivovarov, former executive director of the now-defunct pro-democracy Open Russia Civic Movement, to four years in prison on politically motivated charges of leading an “undesirable organization.” In April 2023, a court in Moscow sentenced Vladimir Kara-Murza to 25 years in maximum security prison on combined charges of involvement with an “undesirable organization,” treason, and dissemination of “false information” about the conduct of the Russian Armed Forces.

The new ban would also reinforce the “foreign agents” legislation, which has long become a key tool in the Kremlin’s civil society crackdown. The original law, pushed through the parliament in 2012, requires nongovernmental groups that receive foreign funding to identify themselves as “foreign agents” and follow cumbersome reporting requirements. Every few years, amendments have harshened this toxic law, extending it to mass media, unregistered organizations, and individuals; expanding the triggers for designating a group or person a “foreign agent;” toughening the inspection regime; and introducing new labeling requirements.

In 2022, a new law created a consolidated, simplified, but broader definition of a “foreign agent.” Under the current law it may include any person, Russian or foreign; any legal entity, either domestic or international; or any group that received foreign support, even for a training session held abroad, and/or is “under foreign influence.” It also excluded “foreign agents” from public life, including work in public service or education, involvement in political parties, and an entire array of other activities, such as operating telecommunication networks or distributing information. Penalties for noncompliance start with hefty fines and go up to five years in prison.

Russian authorities liquidated the Nobel Peace Prize co-laureate group Memorial, one of the most prominent human rights organizations in the country, and several other leading rights groups citing violations of the “foreign agents” legislation.

Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) guarantees to everyone the right to freedom of association with others. In 2022, the Human Rights Committee, which monitors state compliance with the ICCPR, indicated to Russia that it should repeal or revise legislation that restricts freedom of association, including provisions on “foreign agents” and “undesirable” organizations.  

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Moscow Mechanism rapporteur, the European Commission for Democracy through Law (the Venice Commission), and UN human rights experts also criticized Russia’s legislation.

“Russian authorities should uphold their international obligations to ensure freedom of association and freedom of expression,” Lokshina said. “Dropping the new legislation that would ban collaboration with unregistered foreign organizations and repealing the toxic legislation on ‘foreign agents’ and ‘undesirable organizations’ would be the place for them to start.”

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