Russia: Putin's first year back as President has seen 'witch hunt' against NGOs and critics - report

Putin has presided over ‘a witch hunt against dissenting or critical voices’ - John Dalhuisen   Vladimir Putin’s first year back as Russian president has seen a witch hunt against NGOs and critics, and a systematic undermining of freedom of expression in the country, Amnesty International said in a new report today (24 April).     A wave of protest sparked by the Duma elections in late 2011 and last year’s Putin-Medvedev power switch has prompted a raft of restrictions on the freedom of expression and assembly. Two new laws have been introduced and 11 laws have been amended as part of a broad clampdown on dissent, criticism and protest.    Amnesty’s 68-page report, Freedom Under Threat: The clampdown on freedoms of expression, assembly and association in Russia  (PDF), examines a range of legislative developments and cases in which they have been applied in breach of Russia’s international legal obligations.    For example, in language deliberately reminiscent of the cold war, a law introduced last year requires organisations in receipt of foreign funding in Russia to describe themselves as “foreign agents” if they are considered to be involved in undefined “political activities”. This law and the recent “Dima Yakovlev law”, restrict the funding of NGOs from the US and the ability of US nationals to work for organisations operating in Russia, imposing restrictions on freedom of association that are inconsistent with international human rights standards.    The first NGO to face legal proceedings for alleged breach of the “foreign agents” law is the Association In Defense of Voters’ Rights Golos (Voice), which played a prominent role in organising election monitoring and reporting allegations of electoral fraud in the 2011 parliamentary and 2012 presidential elections.    A wave of inspections of NGOs - more than 200 since the start of the year in 50 regions of the country - has targeted all of the most prominent Russian human rights groups and appears to have set the wheels of this law’s application in motion. Amnesty’s Moscow office was “inspected” by prosecutors and tax inspectors on 25 March.   Meanwhile, a raft of new and amended legislation is putting freedom of expression at further risk in Russia. Amnesty is warning that the overly broad scope of the Federal Law on Treason and Espionage can be used to prosecute Russian human rights defenders and civil society activists cooperating with international organisations. Similarly, a re-criminalisation of defamation inhibits legitimate criticism of government or public officials, while a draft “blasphemy” law - a response to the Pussy Riot case - would impose draconian restrictions on the freedom of expression if adopted.   Amnesty International Europe and Central Asia Director John Dalhuisen said:    “Shortly after his inauguration, President Putin spoke in favour of the greater participation of citizens in public affairs. What he has in fact presided over looks very like a witch hunt against dissenting or critical voices, while civil society risks being suffocated and isolated not behind an iron curtain, but a legal one.   “These recent legal initiatives have the declared aim of ensuring public order and the protection of the rights of citizens. Their effect has been the opposite: prominent government critics, opposition voices, watchdogs and ordinary individuals demonstrating on a wide range of issues have all seen their rights restricted over the course of the last year.    “States are obliged to allow and safeguard peaceful assemblies, the default position of authorities in Russia today is that demonstrations they do not approve of, should not take place.    “The raft of new restrictions seeking to limit foreign funding for and foreign influence on NGOs in Russia has repeatedly been justified by the need to safeguard the country’s stability and protect it from hostile foreign interests. This rhetoric is familiar from repressive regimes the world over.”

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