Russia: Another independent organization faces hefty fine

The hefty fine imposed on a civil society organization 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.

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 (over USD 15,500).

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 has recently produced, as is required by the relevant law dictates. An administrative case against its leader is ongoing, and may also result in a high fine too.

This is the fourth non-governmental organization (NGO) to be fined since April this year, after a repressive new “foreign agents’ law” came into effect, placing broad new restrictions on the work of civil society organizations.

“The survival of many civil society organizations in Russia is at stake and, with them, that of freedoms of association and expression in the country,” said John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Programme Director at Amnesty International.

Last July, President Vladimir Putin approved the so-called “foreign agents law” which came into effect in November 2012. It requires any NGO receiving foreign funding to register as an “organization performing the functions of a foreign agent” if it engages in what it defines very loosely as “political activity”.

The Russian government said the law is meant to increase transparency and accountability of civil society organizations in the country, even though strong regulations in that area already existed.

“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,” said Dalhuisen.

Since the law was been enacted, independent civil society organizations 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 “organizations performing the functions of foreign agents”. Two more NGOs will be standing trial in court on the same grounds in the coming days, and so will likely the director of “Bok o Bok”.

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

A further 15 groups have received official orders from the Prosecutor’s Office to “eliminate” their respective 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”.

On 4 June 2013, a court in Moscow ordered the Regional Public Organization Golos – which played a key role in monitoring elections in recent years – to pay a fine of RUB 300,000 (nearly USD 10,000) for failing to register as a “foreign agent”. This NGO is one of the constituting members of the Association Golos, another group also fined last April in the first trial of its kind.

The organization, members of its staff, and its partner civil society groups have been the focus of a protracted smear campaign – including on national television – and harassment by the authorities, culminating in the ongoing trials.

On 15 May this year, Russian Justice Minister Aleksnadr Konovalov warned that if Golos continues to refuse to register as a “foreign agent” the Ministry will seek its closure through a court decision.

On 29 May, the Kostroma Centre for Support of Public Initiatives was sentenced to a hefty fine for failing to register as a “foreign agent” after organizing a roundtable on US-Russia relations which had been attended by a US diplomat last February. The court agreed with the prosecution’s view that this amounted to “political activity”.