Turning the clock back to Soviet times – but Russian NGOs will resist

Anti-Discrimination Centre (ADC) Memorial works on behalf of victims of discrimination in Russia. © OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images
Anti-Discrimination Centre (ADC) Memorial works on behalf of victims of discrimination in Russia. © OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images

By Stephania Kulaeva, head of a Russian non-governmental organization (NGO) which is being sued under the so-called “foreign agents law”. The law, enacted by the Russian authorities late last year, requires any NGO receiving foreign funding and engaging in what it defines very loosely as “political activity” to register as an “organization performing the functions of a foreign agent”.

The future is a world without discrimination. This is what we, at the Anti-Discrimination Centre (ADC) Memorial, have been working towards for over six years. Our mission is to provide legal assistance and information to victims of discrimination; to research and publicize their cases, to lobby on their behalf. Our aim is to overcome racism, xenophobia and intolerance in Russia by supporting anti-discrimination legislation and by promoting human rights education.

Although we are based in St Petersburg we take cases from the Arctic Circle to the North Caucasus, fighting against the discrimination of Russia’s diverse ethnic and other minorities. This includes Roma, migrant labourers from Central Asia and the Caucasus, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people. We also work on behalf of women, civil society activists and journalists who may be persecuted for their human rights work.

We focus also on children who face discrimination or segregation at school because of their ethnicity, meaning they receive an inferior education. Some pupils are not allowed to study their mother tongue and culture. Effort is needed on the part of teachers and parents to integrate such children as well as to educate all children to be tolerant, to accept and embrace the existence of other cultures.

You would think the authorities would support us, in line with Russia’s Constitution and international obligations. However, at every step we face official obstacles. Xenophobia is on the rise, fuelled by discriminatory legislation.  Racial profiling and homophobia on the part of the police are rife, and they appear willing to use excessive force at the least provocation.

Last year we submitted our report, Roma people, migrants, activists – victims of police arbitrariness, to the 49th session of the UN Committee Against Torture. For this the St Petersburg Prosecutor’s Office is persecuting us as “foreign agents”, for allegedly working against the country’s interests and trying to influence society in order to change the state’s policies.

ADC Memorial shares the ordeal of many other human rights organizations. We were ‘inspected’. We were taken to court on administrative charges and faced huge fines. But then the courts threw out our case, thus questioning the legality of bringing us to trial in the first place.

With that behind us, we are now fighting a civil case. At the behest of “unidentified persons” the prosecution is asking the court to oblige us to register as “foreign agents”.

The trial is blatantly unfair. In any trial, the prosecution and the defence should have an equal footing, given the same chance to argue their case. But in our case, this is true on paper only. While the prosecution is seated at a table in the centre of the courtroom, we are relegated to the gallery with the general public and journalists. Very few of those who want to attend the hearing can do so – standing or bringing in extra benches is not allowed.

All of the prosecution’s requests are answered, while ours go ignored. The judge approved the prosecution’s demand to apply the “foreign agents law” retroactively, by checking our accounts in the past. But when we asked to allow greater publicity of the court hearing, we were told that “journalists interfere with jurisdiction”.

We are convinced that the trial against us is unlawful from start to finish. The authorities have no right to prosecute us for exposing police violence and human rights violations in general, or for defending people from discrimination.

The treatment of our organization is indicative of the Russian authorities’ present course – they’re turning the clock back to Soviet times by stifling freedom of expression and resurrecting political repression of human rights defenders.

ADC Memorial will never label itself as a “foreign agent”. We would rather disband.

This will be a hard blow for the people we work for and with. It will be a blow for human rights.

The “foreign agents law” must be scrapped. The Russian authorities are obliged to adhere to international human rights standards and the country’s Constitution.

I have been fighting discrimination for more than 20 years in Russia and have witnessed the rise of racism, intolerance, xenophobia and homophobia in all walks of life. The authorities have a lot to answer for – introducing legislation like the “ban on propaganda of homosexuality”. They repress civil society and try to gag human rights defenders. We have to fight this.

Take action:Sign the petition calling on Putin to protect freedom of expression

Read more:Russia applies sinister new tactic to tar civil society as ‘foreign agents’ (News story, 28 November 2013)
Russia’s backward march on human rights (Blog, 18 November 2013)
‘Are we really foreign agents?’ – Russia’s crackdown on civil society (Blog, 13 November 2013)
Russia: Voters’ rights NGO is first victim of ‘foreign agents’ law (News story, 25 April 2013)
Russia: President Putin’s witch hunt (News story/report, 24 April 2013)