Russia: New “foreign agents” ruling against prominent group shows no end in sight to NGO crackdown

A Moscow court on 23 May rejected an appeal filed by the Memorial Human Rights Center, one of Russia’s most prominent human rights NGOs, against a prosecutor’s order requiring it to register as a “foreign agent.” This decision is greatly disappointing and reinforces the impression that there’s no end in sight to the crackdown on independent NGOs in Russia.

“The decision in Memorial’s case is part and parcel of a state-orchestrated campaign aimed at intimidating and silencing inconvenient NGOs,” said Brigitte Dufour, the director of International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR). She attended the trial as part of a trial monitoring project implemented by IPHR in the framework of the Civic Solidarity Platform, a network of over 50 human rights NGOs in Europe, the former Soviet Union and North America. “The international community must continue to speak up against this campaign and use all opportunities to demonstrate solidarity with Memorial and other NGOs targeted under it,” she continued.

Memorial has been ordered by Moscow prosecutors to register as a “foreign agent” under a  controversial 2012 Russian law, which requires NGOs that receive foreign funding and engage in broadly defined “political activities” to adopt this label. The order was made in the context of a wave of intrusive inspections targeting NGOs across the country in the spring of 2013. Memorial has not denied receiving grants from foreign donors, but insists that it does not carry out activities of a “political” character or act in the interests of donors.

At the hearing at Moscow’s Zamoskvoretsky district court, the representatives of the prosecutor’s office appeared astonishingly ill-prepared, using weak and inconsistent argumentation, and repeating wording from the original notification issued against Memorial time after another, while failing to give any clear answers to questions from Memorial’s lawyers as to why its activities are considered to fall under the fall under the “foreign agents” law. The original notification claims, among others, that programs and projects implemented by Memorial with foreign funding are aimed at “propaganda” of the “imperfection” of the policies of Russian authorities. Memorial’s lawyers concluded that the prosecutors failed to back up their position that the organization should register as a “foreign agent” with either facts or legal arguments and emphasized that the order against it is incompatible with human rights protections laid down by national and international law. The court, however, dismissed Memorial’s appeal.

Following the ruling, Memorial stated that it will not register as a “foreign agent” and will appeal the decision, while continuing its work. All NGOs targeted under the law have categorically refused to adopt the label of “foreign agents,” which is highly stigmatizing and would undermine their reputation and credibility. According to an opinion pollconducted by the independent Levada Center,  over 60% of Russians have a distinctively negative perception of this term, interpreting it as ”spy,” “internal enemy,” “fifth column” etc. NGOs that fail to register as “foreign agents” when ordered to do so may face suspension of their activities and large fines of over 10,000 EUR. Their leaders risk prison terms of up to two years.

“It is plainly absurd that Memorial and other Russian NGOs are being asked to call themselves ‘traitors’ because of their efforts to promote respect for human rights in their country,” stated IPHR Director Brigitte Dufour, who was present at today’s hearing together with representatives of other international and Russian NGOs, media, and the EU delegation and embassies based in Russia. She added: “These organizations are the victims of a pattern of legal injustice that must be corrected.”

The hearings in the cases of three other human rights NGOs - the GOLOS Association, the Public Verdict Foundation and the Jurix NGO of Lawyers for Constitutional Rights and Freedoms, which all also have appealed against prosecutor’s orders requiring them to register as “foreign agents”, were postponed to later dates in June. All four trials have previously been postponed several times, most recently on 15 April when the judge hearing the cases reportedly called in sick in the last minute.

Since enforcement of the “foreign agents” law began a year ago, dozens of NGOs have faced court proceedings, which have taken away their time and resources from ongoing work and created a high level of uncertainty about the future. Prosecutors have won a number of cases against NGOs, and some NGOs have initiated liquidation procedures to avoid further legal prosecution. Among these is the Memorial Anti-Discrimination Center, a St. Petersburg-based human rights NGO. In December 2013, this organization wasordered by court to register as a “foreign agent” on the basis of spurious civil action brought by prosecutors after an administrative case on similar charges was turned down. Its appeal against the decision was rejected and last month it formally closed down.

The “foreign agents” law has been widely criticized by international human rights bodies for violating Russia’s international human rights obligations. A complaint about the law submitted by Memorial and a number of other Russian NGOs to the European Court of Human Rights is currently pending consideration. Last month, however, the Russian Constitutional Court rejected a petition from the ombudsman’s office and civil society representatives to recognize the law as unconstitutional.

In a further worrisome development, new legal provisions currently under consideration in the Russian parliament will allow the Ministry of Justice to register NGOs as “foreign agents” at its own initiative, without a court decision. These provisions were adopted by the Duma (the lower house) on 23 May and will enter into force if passed by the Federation Council (the upper house) and signed by the president.

Together with other members of the Civic Solidarity Platform, IPHR has repeatedly called for the “foreign agents” law to be repealed in its current format, the cases against all groups targeted under it to be dropped, and for Russian NGOs to be allowed to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without intimidation and harassment.