(Moscow) – The Russian government crackdown against nongovernmental organizations shows that the 2012 “foreign agent” law amounts to little more than an effort to crush dissent and debate that is essential in a democratic society, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Justice Ministry has used newly introduced powers to brand 30 groups as “foreign agents,” including the country’s most expert and authoritative human rights organizations, and has used bureaucratic pretexts to try to close down several other groups. At least six groups have chosen to close rather than be labelled a “foreign agent” – a term widely and unambiguously understood in Russia to mean “spy” or “traitor.” Other groups have been hit with steep fines. New draft laws, if adopted, would further marginalize “foreign agent” groups by forbidding public officials to participate in them, and would sanction anyone involved with a group the authorities deem “undesirable.”

“Russia’s authorities seem determined to stigmatize and silence dissent, until there is no one left to speak out,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of targeting independent groups, the government should be listening to what they have to say.”

Since December 2014 alone, the Justice Ministry has branded 16 groups as “foreign agents.” They include the Sakharov Center, a prominent organization dedicated to sustaining the legacy of Andrei Sakharov – the Soviet physicist who became a dissident, human rights leader, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate – and housing a permanent exhibition on the history of Soviet repression. They also include the Nizhny Novgorod-based Committee against Torture, a leading nongovernmental group that provides legal aid and rehabilitation to torture victims in Russia.

Government notices to several of these groups, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, show that authorities equate public discussion of government policies, actions, or officials with “political activity,” particularly if it criticizes or expresses dissenting views. Documents received by the Committee against Torture and the Sakharov Center, for example, singled out discussion and public documents that criticize the government, and claimed, in one case, that a public letter to the United Nations “aims to discredit” government agencies.

“Singling out speech that criticizes government policies or actions belies the authorities’ claims that the ‘foreign agent’ law was about transparency,” Denber said. “What is transparent is that the government increasingly considers most criticism a security threat.”

A new draft law, which passed a first reading in parliament on January 20, 2015, would ban “undesirable” foreign companies or organizations, or groups that are perceived to pose a threat to broadly defined “defense capability or security of the State, public order, or public health.” The bill’s stated aim is to “protect the constitutional order, morality, human rights and the lawful interests of other people,” and its author said in a media interview that it was aimed at groups that are “unfriendly” to Russia. If the current version of the law is adopted, it would impose hefty fines on people who organize activities for such groups, participate in those groups’ activities, or “obtain money or property from them.” Repeat offenders would be subject to criminal penalties.

In several cases, the Justice Ministry branded groups as “foreign agents” while they were still appealing government notices ordering them to change their activities or funding or to register as “foreign agents.” Among them are Memorial Human Rights Center, Public Verdict, Lawyers for Constitutional Rights and Freedoms (Jurix), and Agora. In some cases, the groups learned of the Justice Ministry’s designation from the media.

Under the 2012 “foreign agent” law, groups that accept foreign funding and engage in broadly defined “political activities” must publicly identify themselves as “foreign agents.” A June 2014 law authorized the Justice Ministry to register such groups without their consent.

Russian authorities have also moved to liquidate several prominent groups, accusing them of violating a range of bureaucratic regulations. For example, in September the Justice Ministry petitioned the Supreme Court to liquidate Memorial Russia, an umbrella group dedicated to assisting survivors of Soviet repression, just after the organization had informed the ministry that the group would hold a members’ congress to address the ministry’s concerns.

All of the groups singled out in recent months had already been targeted in the spring of 2013, when the government carried out a nationwide inspection campaign of independent groups.

In 2012 and 2013, government officials claimed the “foreign agent” law aimed only to enhance transparency and rejected allegations that it aimed to marginalize or punish advocacy groups. In April 2014, Russia’s Constitutional Court ruled there were no legal or constitutional grounds for contending that the term “foreign agent” was pejorative and that, therefore, its use was “not intended to persecute or discredit” groups.

But new legislation proposals announced in December belie these claims, Human Rights Watch said.

In December, the Justice Ministry said it was examining draft amendments that would allow removing organizations from the “foreign agents” registry if they could demonstrate that they had either not received foreign funds or stopped engaging in “political activity” for a full year after their initial designation. Groups that were removed from the registry and subsequently found to carry out “political activity” and receive foreign funding would “lose the right to be removed from the registry for three years.”

In mid-December, two members of the Duma, the Russian parliament, announced they had submitted draft amendments that would ban civil servants and members of parliament from being a member of or serving on the board, advisory council, or any other body of a “foreign agent” group. One of the bill’s sponsors said that the change was needed “if we’re going to achieve minimum Western influence on our country’s political situation” and that “The struggle for sovereignty is serious and painstaking work.”

“The government’s latest moves against independent groups and freedom of expression are shockingly out of line with Russia’s international human rights obligations and its commitments as a Council of Europe member,” Denber said. “The government should immediately drop the ‘foreign agent’ law and stop harassing independent groups.”

Branded a “Foreign Agent”

Sakharov Center (Public Commission to Preserve the Legacy of Andrei Sakharov)
On December 25, 2014, the Justice Ministry added the Sakharov Center to the list of “foreign agents.” Founded in 1990, the Sakharov Center houses a museum with a permanent exhibit on the history of Soviet repression as well as temporary exhibits on human rights themes, and holds events related to Sakharov and his human rights legacy. Government inspections – in March 2013 and August 2014 – found neither violations nor indications that the center was a “foreign agent.”

However, following a complaint “from an individual who asked to keep his name confidential” that the Justice Ministry alleged it had received, on December 12 its officials began an “unplanned” inspection of the Sakharov Center. The ministry’s December 25 inspection report claimed that the center “systematically carries out political activities – organizing discussions, debates, seminars, and on-line discussions.”

The notice cited excerpts about these activities, noting that the discussions were critical of Russian government agencies and policies. The examples cited included a lecture about using judicial reform to counter authoritarianism in Russia; a debate about whether to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi; an online discussion about the 2013 verdict against the political opposition leader Alexei Navalny and the verdict’s alleged connection with the 2013 Moscow mayoral election, in which Navalny was a candidate; and several Sakharov Center public statements about Russia’s role in the conflict in Ukraine.

The ministry’s report concluded that “In the course of the group’s activities [participants] expressed criticism of [Russian] legislation, gave negative assessments of decisions and policies of government agencies.”

Lawyers for Constitutional Rights and Freedoms (Jurix) and Public Verdict
Jurix
, founded in 2003, offered free legal assistance in human rights cases, provided expert legal opinions on draft legislation, and led litigation at the Russian Constitutional Court and the European Court for Human Rights. In autumn 2014, the group began the liquidation process.

On July 21, the Justice Ministry forcibly registered Jurix and Public Verdict as “foreign agents,” along with the Memorial Human Rights Center; Agora, a leading group that provides legal and other assistance to independent groups; and an environmental group. At the time, Jurix, Public Verdict, Memorial, and Agora were still challenging in court earlier demands by the authorities to register as “foreign agents.” Tatyana Glushkova, a senior lawyer with Jurix, told Human Rights Watch that the group found out that it had been registered from the media, and received the Justice Ministry’s notification days later.

In May 2013 the prosecutor’s office had issued Jurix a notice ordering it to “eliminate violations” of the law. The prosecutors provided a list of the group’s alleged “political activities,” including providing legal representation in court, publishing on its website a report about Jurix’s work in 2012, and participating in public hearings and a television show discussing the adoption of a regional law in St. Petersburg banning “propaganda of sodomy, lesbianism, bisexualism, and transgenderism” among children. Glushkova wrote an expert opinion arguing against the adoption of the anti-LGBT law.

Jurix challenged the notice’s finding, but in June 2014 a Moscow district court ruled in favor of the prosecutor’s office. While Jurix was still awaiting appeal, the Justice Ministry registered it as a “foreign agent.” On November 18, the Moscow city court upheld the district court’s ruling.

Glushkova told Human Rights Watch: “We made a decision to liquidate the organization right after receiving the Justice Ministry’s notice that it included Jurix on the “foreign agent” registry. We don’t want to bear such a misleading label, and we realize that by agreeing to work under this label, our work will be drastically limited and ineffective. We cannot accept that.”

Public Verdict, founded in 2004, provides legal assistance to victims of police abuse. It has, among other activities, helped victims of police torture obtain justice and also provided a hotline for people detained by police at public demonstrations. In May 2013, the group received a prosecutor’s notice that its activities were “political,” pointing to a range of work carried out in 2011 and 2012. Among the cited activities were recommendations the group issued, at the Russian government’s request, on police reform.

In July 2014, the Ministry of Justice unilaterally placed Public Verdict on its “foreign agent” registry. In early December, several days after Public Verdict lost a first appeal, an unnamed Justice Ministry official told a reporter that groups that fail to comply with the law could be “warned or have their activities suspended.” It was not clear whether the remark was meant as a direct warning to Public Verdict, since the group has not yet exhausted its appeals.

Nizhny Novgorod Committee Against Torture
Founded in 2000 to prevent torture and achieve accountability for instances of torture, the group has been involved in 107 cases in which police and prison personnel have been convicted for their involvement in ill-treatment, including torture. Some of those found guilty were sentenced to prison. The group has filed 79 cases with the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of victims, and has won the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars in total damages for victims.

On December 29, 2014, the Nizhny Novgorod regional prosecutor’s office sent the group a notice of violations, stating that by failing to register as a foreign agent, the group was violating the law. The notice set a one-month deadline to register. The prosecutor’s office declined the group’s requests to meet to discuss the notice, and on January 19, 2015, before the one-month deadline, the Justice Ministry registered the group as a “foreign agent.”

Among evidence cited in the notice that the group engages in “political activities” are several public documents that convey “negative assessments” of Russian government policies. These include:

  • A letter to the UN Committee Against Torture stating that Russia was not implementing recommendations that the committee had issued. The prosecutor’s office claimed this letter “discredits law enforcement agencies in the eyes of the international community” and “was aimed at influencing public opinion and influencing state agencies in order to get them to make certain political decisions”;
  • A link on the group’s website to a report by the French group Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT) that found that torture in Russia was widespread; the group, as well as Public Verdict, had participated in the research; and
  • A small, public, anti-torture gathering on the International Day against Torture; and
  • A statement by the Russian Presidential Human Rights Council about Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, signed by, among others, Igor Kalyapin, head of the Nizhny Novgorod Committee Against Torture, in his personal capacity as a member of the council.

The notice also cited Kalyapin’s involvement in a government working group and the Russian Presidential Human Rights Council, even though Kalyapin participated in these bodies in his personal capacity. In its April 2014 ruling, Russia’s Constitutional Court stated that a group could not be branded a “foreign agent” as a consequence of actions taken by its individual members in their private capacity.

Moscow School for Civic Education
On December 9 the Justice Ministry added the Moscow School for Civic Education to the list of “foreign agent” groups. On December 22, while the school was in the midst of appealing the designation, a court fined the school 300,000 rubles for failing to comply with the requirements of the law. Founded with support from the Council of Europe, of which Russia is a member, the school aims to spread and share global and Russian perspectives on civil society and governance through roundtables, seminars, on-line discussions, and the like.

“Liquidation” Attempts on Punitive Bureaucratic Grounds

All-Russian Historical Education, Charity and Human Rights Association Memorial (Memorial Russia)
Following the 2013 inspection wave, the Justice Ministry found fault with Memorial Russia’s organizational structure and its activity reports to the ministry. Founded in the late 1980s, Memorial Russia consisted of dozens of groups dedicated to remembering and assisting victims of Soviet repression. The groups eventually united under a single umbrella, Memorial, loosely coordinated by a Moscow-based board. The groups varied in name, size, registration status, and the like. Following an inspection in 2013 the Justice Ministry insisted that the Moscow board reconstitute all of its branches.

In early September 2014, after Memorial Russia lost its court challenges of the ministry’s findings, it notified the ministry in writing that it would hold a congress of all its constituent groups in November to change its charter and address the ministry’s concerns. However, in September the ministry petitioned Russia’s Supreme Court to dissolve Memorial Russia. After Russia’s ombudsperson intervened with President Vladimir Putin, and several high-profile international actors expressed concern, including the Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe, the hearing was postponed to December 17. By then, Memorial Russia had held a congress, changed its charter, become a confederation, and made other adjustments that satisfied most of the ministry’s demands.

At the December 17 Supreme Court hearing, though, the Justice Ministry acknowledged that Memorial Russia had addressed the ministry’s concerns regarding the group’s organizational structure, but stated it had yet to fully examine the group’s activity reports. The next hearing is scheduled for January 28, 2015.

Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus (EWNC)
On October 24, 2014, the Supreme Court of Adygea ruled in favor of a Justice Ministry petition to liquidate the EWNC, based in Maykop, 1,400 kilometers south of Moscow. Andrei Rudomakha, the group’s coordinator, told Human Rights Watch that the organization only received notification about the hearing two weeks after the ruling so the organization’s representatives were not able to attend the hearing.

The ministry’s petition said the group had failed to address violations that authorities had found during a government inspection in spring 2013. One of the alleged violations relates to the group’s refusal to provide email correspondence and other requested documentation during and after the inspection of the group’s offices, which was particularly invasive. During the inspection, officials urged the group not to publish its report on environmental consequences of the Sochi Olympic preparations so as “not to harm the country.” The group refused, but did provide access to its internal emails during the inspection.

Rudomakha said that in December 2013, the Justice Ministry had asked to see financial documents and internal email correspondence for the last three years, as well as other documentation that the inspectors had already reviewed. The group considered the request excessive, refused to provide the information, and was fined twice. The Justice Ministry also found a violation in the group’s structure, and eventually suspended its work for six months, until September 2014. The group has appealed the Supreme Court’s ruling.