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International NGOs urge EU leaders to tackle Putin on Russia's civil society crackdown

‘Foreign agents’ labelling one measure threatening Russia’s international standing

Ahead of this week’s European Union-Russia summit, a group of eight international human rights organisations is calling on European Union leaders to urge Russian President Vladimir Putin to end a crackdown on Russian civil society.

Russia has recently passed a series of laws that restrict the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.

The eight international organisations believe the moves have significantly hindered the operation of Russian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as well as international NGOs supporting them. The laws have created an environment for civil society in Russia where activists now face significant risks in carrying out their work. The NGOs are calling on the EU to urge the Russian government to bring its laws into line with Russia’s international obligations and rights guaranteed under the Russian Constitution, by repealing restrictive new laws and guaranteeing a safe environment for civil society.

Amnesty International, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, Freedom House, Front Line Defenders, Greenpeace, Human Rights Watch, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, and a joint programme of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and Transparency International are urging summit participants to seek a commitment from the Russian government to ensure the involvement of civil society in public policy debates, to stop the harassment of human rights organisations, and to increase protection for civil society activists and journalists.

The NGOs are calling for the repeal of recently adopted law with provisions inconsistent with Russia’s international and constitutional commitments on human rights and good governance. These include:
*Non-profit and non-governmental organisations receiving funds from foreign organisations being required to register with a special government agency and publicly identify themselves as “foreign agents” - a pejorative label signifying spy and traitor - if they engage in so-called “political activities”, which include advocacy and influencing public opinion. Such organisations must also put “foreign agent” on all publications. Failure to respect the provisions is punishable by a prison sentence.

*A new, broad legal definition of “treason” which could potentially criminalise human rights and political activism.

*Exorbitantly high penalties of up to £20,000 introduced for violating restrictive rules on public protests, which have created a chilling effect on the right to peaceful assembly.

*New government powers to shut down websites without a court order if they are considered to be publishing “prohibited” information, a term that is not clearly defined. This could curb freedom of expression and increase internet censorship.

*Libel being made a criminal offence, punishable by fines of up to £37,0000, a move which is likely to inhibit criticism by the media and NGOs of public officials and policies.

The eight NGOs are stressing that new restrictive laws, particularly the definition of treason, could threaten Russia’s membership in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), its accession to the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials, and its relationship with the European Court of Human Rights.

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