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Russia: fourth NGO fined under repressive 'foreign agents' law

‘Bok o Bok’ gay and lesbian rights group the latest NGO targeted

The hefty fine imposed on a civil society organisation in Russia today is further evidence of the Russian government’s determination to curtail the freedom of association and free speech in the country, Amnesty International said this evening.

The St Petersburg-based film festival “Bok o Bok” (“Side by Side”), which seeks to create a space where lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people can openly express their identity, was issued with an unprecedentedly heavy combined fine of RUB 500,000 (£10,000).

The fine was based on two purported separate offences: its failure to register as a “foreign agent”, and the failure to indicate that it is a “foreign agent” in a publication it recently produced. An administrative case against its leader is ongoing, and may also result in a high fine.

This is the fourth non-governmental organisation (NGO) to be fined under the repressive new “foreign agents’ law”. Last July, President Vladimir Putin approved the law, which came into effect last November. It requires any NGO receiving foreign funding to register as an “organisation performing the functions of a foreign agent” if it engages in what it defines very loosely as “political activity”. The Russian government says the law is meant to increase transparency and accountability of civil society organisations in the country, even though strong regulations in that area already exist.

Since the law was been enacted, independent civil society organisations across Russia have been subjected to pressure, intimidation, harassment and smear campaigns by the authorities. Courts in Russia have already issued four NGOs and two of their leaders hefty with fines for failing to register as “organisations performing the functions of foreign agents”. Two more NGOs will be standing trial in court on the same grounds in the coming days.

Amnesty International Europe and Central Asia Director John Dalhuisen said:

“The survival of many civil society organisations in Russia is at stake and, with them, that of freedoms of association and expression in the country.

“One of the reasons advanced for the Foreign Agents Law was the need to ensure transparency in the NGO sector.  Ironically, but unsurprisingly, NGOs pushing for greater accountability on the part of the authorities, have been among the first to targeted.”

A further 15 groups have received official orders from the Prosecutor’s Office to “eliminate” their purported violations of the law - which involves similarly registering as “foreign agents” - within a month, or face legal consequences. Furthermore, at least 39 other NGOs have been officially warned by the Prosecutor’s Office that they will be violating the law if they receive foreign funding and engage in political activities but fail to register as “foreign agents”.  

Meanwhile, Offices of hundreds of NGOs - including Amnesty’s Moscow office - have recently been “inspected” by representatives of the prosecution, tax authorities and other government agencies.

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