Russia: Government against Rights Groups
July 8, Moscow: In 2012 Russia’s parliament adopted a law that required nongovernmental organizations (NGO)s to register as "foreign agents" with the Ministry of Justice if they engage in “political activity” and receive foreign funding. The definition of “political activity” under the law is so broad and vague that it can extend to all aspects of advocacy and human rights work.
Initially, the law required all respective NGOs to request the Ministry to have them registered and implied legal consequences for failure to do so. Because in Russia “foreign agent” can be interpreted only as “spy” or “traitor,” there is little doubt that the law aims to demonize and marginalize independent advocacy groups. Russia’s vibrant human rights groups resolutely boycotted the law, calling it “unjust” and “slanderous.”
In early March 2013 the Russian government launched a nationwide campaign of intrusive inspections of hundreds of NGOs to identify advocacy groups the government deems “foreign agents” and force them to register as such.
Since the law entered into force, numerous rights groups challenged the prosecutor’s office and the Ministry of Justice in courts; most lost their cases. As a result, by February 2015 at least 13 groups chose to shut down rather than wear the shameful “foreign agent” label, including Association of NGOs in Defense of Voters’ Rights “Golos”, JURIX (Lawyers for Constitutional Rights and Freedoms), the Moscow School of Civic Education (Moscow), Kostroma Center for Civic Initiatives Support, Anti-Discrimination Center (ADC) Memorial, Side by Side LGBT Film Festival, Coming Out, “Freedom of Information” Foundation, the League of Women Voters and Human Rights Resource Center (Saint-Petersburg), Center for Social Policy and Gender Studies and Association “Partnership for Development” (Saratov), Interregional Non-Governmental Organization “The Committee Against Torture” (Nizhniy Novgorod).
In August 2013, Russia’s then-federal ombudsman Vladimir Lukin, acting on behalf of four organizations and their leaders who were affected by the law, challenged the law in Russia’s Constitutional Court. On April 8, 2014 Russia’s Constitutional Court upheld the law, ruling that there were no legal or constitutional grounds for contending that the term “foreign agent” had negative connotations from the Soviet era and that, therefore, its use was “not intended to persecute or discredit” NGOs. The Constitutional Court also found that the “foreign agent” designation was in line with the public interest and the interest of state sovereignty.
On May 23, 2014 parliament amended the “foreign agents” law, this time authorizing the Ministry of Justice to register independent groups as “foreign agents” without their consent, if the ministry regards the organizations as engaged in “political activity” and if the organization is receiving foreign funding. On June 4, 2014 the amendments were signed into law.
On June 5, 2014 the Ministry of Justice promptly registered five groups as “foreign agents,” and since then has registered a total of 130, including prominent civil society groups that vigorously protested this action.
The Oslo Times International News Network