Russia: latest 'foreign agents' crackdown on human rights NGOs condemned

Prosecutor’s office plans to ‘inspect’ thousands of groups throughout country

A new wave of inspections of nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) in Russia in the past fortnight is part of an intensifying crackdown on the country’s embattled human rights community since the adoption of a series of restrictive laws last year, Amnesty International, Front Line Defenders and Human Rights Watch said today.

Teams of officials from a variety of government agencies have inspected at least 30 NGO groups in the past two weeks in Moscow, and many more in at least 13 other regions of Russia.

Yesterday five officials from the country’s prosecutor’s office, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Justice, and the Tax Inspectorate, arrived without warning at the Moscow office of Memorial office - one of Russia’s most prominent NGOs - to conduct an inspection. A television crew from NTV, a pro-Kremlin station, arrived with the inspectors to film the proceedings.

It is not clear how NTV learned about the inspection, since most government inspections in the current wave are unannounced. Later that day NTV aired a news report alleging that Memorial may be in violation of the “foreign agents” law. In recent years, NTV has broadcast numerous shows seeking to portray Russia’s political opposition as foreign-sponsored. Meanwhile, yesterday the prosecutor’s office inspected the offices of at least four other human rights organisations in St Petersburg.

The inspections, targeting groups that receive foreign funding and engage in advocacy work, and are part of a broader crackdown on civil society that began last year. The Russian prosecutor’s office has stated publicly that it plans to inspect between 30 and 100 NGOs in each of Russia’s regions, which could amount to thousands of groups throughout the country. According to media reports, the prosecutor’s office in St Petersburg alone plans to inspect about 100 groups.

In December President Vladimir Putin signed a law allowing the suspension of NGOs and the freezing of their assets if they engage in “political” activities and receive funding from US citizens or organisations. Organisations can be similarly sanctioned if their leaders or members are Russian citizens who also have US passports. Russian law envisages unannounced inspections of NGOs groups under a variety of circumstances. The “foreign agents” law, for example, authorises “unannounced” (vneplanovye) inspections upon a request by the prosecutor’s office, among other grounds.

Amnesty International Europe and Central Asia Director John Dalhuisen said:

“There has long been a fear that Russia’s new NGO law would be used to target prominent critical organisations. The spate of inspections in recent weeks appears to confirm this suspicion. The bigger fear is that this is just round one, and that, after the smearing, the forced closures will come.”

Human Rights Watch Europe and Central Asia Director Hugh Williamson said:

“The scale of the inspections is unprecedented and only serves to reinforce the menacing atmosphere for civil society. The Russian authorities should end, rather than intensify, the crackdown that’s been under way for the past year.”

Front Line Defenders Deputy Director Andrew Anderson said:

“This ongoing harassment of human rights defenders is contrary to Russia’s international commitments and indicates a fear of free and open discussion about the human rights situation in Russia.”

Pavel Chikov, head of Agora, a human rights group that advises on laws governing NGOs, said that the inspections are to determine whether groups are complying with a raft of regulatory laws. The laws include one adopted in November that requires any group that accepts foreign funding and engages in “political activity” to register as a “foreign agent.”

The “foreign agents” law was roundly criticised in Russia and abroad, including by the United Nations high commissioner for human rights and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, of which Russia is a member. For months after the law’s adoption it was not clear how and whether it would be enforced.  However, at a 14 February meeting with the Federal Security Service, President Vladimir Putin said: “We have a set of rules and regulations for NGOs in Russia, including rules and regulations about foreign funding. These laws, naturally, should be enforced. Any direct or indirect interference in our internal affairs, any form of pressure on Russia, on our allies and partners is inadmissible.”

In late February, the media began to report on inspections of NGOs by the prosecutor’s office in the Saratov region in southern Russia, and then on 5 March a wave of inspections began in Moscow. In most cases the inspections are carried out by a team of prosecutorial, Justice Ministry and tax officials. In some cases the inspectors have also examined whether a group’s work is “extremist” in response to alleged complaints filed by individuals or a government agency. Some inspections have included agents from the Federal Security Service, fire department, sanitation department, and other agencies.

The scope of the inspections appears to be far-ranging. Memorial and several other groups said that officials showed the representatives of the groups documents referring to their authority to check for “compliance with the laws of the Russian Federation” in general. But a document leaked to the media that provides instructions to local prosecutors’ offices for conducting inspections specifically urges them to analyse sources of foreign funding for the groups and their involvement in political activities, as well as any evidence of “extremism.” In many cases the officials have provided no advance notice inspections and officials have refused to present authorising documents, ordering NGOs to immediately provide all documents as demanded. Several organisations have said officials have scoured premises, searching libraries for “extremist” literature and asking to access computers.

Since Putin’s return to the presidency last year, a parliament dominated by members of the pro-Putin United Russia party has adopted a series of laws imposing dramatic new restrictions on civil society. A law from last June introduced limits on public assemblies and raised financial sanctions to the level of criminal fines. Two more laws were passed in July. One re-criminalised libel, while the other imposed new restrictions on internet content. Another law, adopted in November, expanded the definition of “treason” in ways that could criminalise involvement in international human rights advocacy.

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