Russia’s new effort to stifle independent groups

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bill introduced in Russia’s parliament on November 10, 2020 would further restrict the ability to function of independent groups that are already suffocating under the restrictive “foreign agents” law and other legislation, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.

The bill, submitted by Russia’s Cabinet of Ministers, would expand reporting requirements for independent groups tagged as “foreign agents” and would allow the Justice Ministry to ban any planned or ongoing activity by those groups. Failure to comply would serve as grounds to close down the organization. It also introduces additional grounds for unscheduled government inspections of these groups.

“This bill would create yet another repressive tool the government can use to harass independent groups, interfere with their work, and ultimately shut them down,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This bill should be dropped immediately, and the other repressive laws need to go.”

Existing legislation allows the Justice Ministry to ban a foreign group’s activity or project, in part or in whole. The new bill expands this authority to allow the ministry to ban activities and projects of Russian organizations designated “foreign agents.”

The bill would also allow unscheduled inspections of a group if the authorities receive allegations that it participated in events organized or conducted by a foreign organization listed in Russia as “undesirable.” The draft does not clarify what constitutes “participation,” does not differentiate between allegations that a group member “participated” personally in such events or as a representative of the group, and does not limit such events to those in Russia. The draft includes no qualifying criteria requiring the allegations to be credible before they trigger an inspection, nor any cap on the number of these inspections.

The bill also imposes an obligation on domestic nongovernmental groups designated “foreign agents” and foreign groups represented in Russia to submit documentation in advance to the authorities for any project they are planning and then report on its implementation or provide an explanation if it fell through.

For nearly a decade, Russian authorities have used laws governing nongovernmental groups to increasingly restrict space for civic activity and penalize group leaders, as well as individual members. The bill, if adopted, would create another persistent threat to independent groups, Human Rights Watch said.

Since 2012, the Russian government has used the “foreign agents” law to demonize independent groups that accept foreign funding and carry out public advocacy, especially those that in any way challenge government policies and actions. In Russia, the term “foreign agent” has a strong negative connotation, akin to “traitor.”

The law requires listed groups to mark their “foreign agent” status on all publications and creates onerous reporting requirements and restrictions on the activities they may undertake. The law was subsequently expanded to include media outlets and even individual bloggers that receive any amount of funding from foreign sources.

The Justice Ministry’s register currently lists 68 organizations, many of them human rights groups, environmental groups, and charities. The extensive reporting and audit requirements litigation groups have had to undertake to contest fines and restrictions have put an enormous strain on affected organizations, in particular on smaller organizations outside Moscow and St. Petersburg.

More than 30 organizations have shut down rather than accept the false and stigmatizing “foreign agent” label.

Criminal and administrative sanctions for noncompliance with the “foreign agent” law include fines of up to 500,000 rubles (approximately US$6,500) or imprisonment of up to two years. In 2019, the authorities opened five separate criminal cases against Alexandra Koroleva, a prominent environmental activist, on “malicious evasion” charges for failure to pay the 300,000-ruble (US$3,900) fine in connection with the foreign agents law, forcing her into exile to escape the risk of imprisonment. Human rights lawyer Semyon Simonov is facing trial in Sochi on the same charges and may face up to two years in prison.

In 2020, one of the most prominent Russian human rights organizations, Memorial, had to pay 5.3 million rubles (US$69,000) in fines under that law.

Two cases are pending before the European Court of Human Rights, brought by more than 70 Russian groups that contend that the “foreign agents” law has violated their rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association. Many of the groups spent years in litigation fighting the stigma and restrictions, as well as administrative and financial burdens that come with the designation. The court has sent a list of questions to the Russian government in connection with the cases.

Russia’s law on “undesirable foreign organizations” allows the authorities to ban, without judicial oversight, a foreign or international group that allegedly undermines Russia’s security, defense, or constitutional order. Russians who maintain ties with “undesirables” face penalties ranging from fines to a maximum of six years in prison. Russia’s list of “undesirable organizations” currently has 24 entries, including prominent international donor and humanitarian organizations.

Russian authorities have already used a very loose interpretation of what constitutes “organizing or participating in activities” with an “undesirable” organization. Courts sentenced two people to mandatory labor on such charges, even though they denied they were involved with the group. Another person is on trial on the same charges and has been under house arrest for over 21 months.

The new bill will give rise to further violations of the rights to freedom of association and expression guaranteed in key human rights treaties to which Russia is a party, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. These rights are also enshrined in the Russian Constitution.

Several international human rights bodies have called on Russia to bring its laws on nongovernmental organizations in line with international legal obligations, including the UN Human Rights Committee, and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission and Commissioner on Human Rights.

“Groups including Russia’s most prominent human rights organizations have been struggling for years to fight off illegitimate state inference, and this bill will make the fight even harder,” Williamson said. “The Russian government should halt its efforts to stifle independent groups and comply with its obligations under international law.”

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