Russian NGOs fighting for their lives

A Moscow court has upped the ante in the Russian government’s assault on independent civil society by refusing to overturn an order forcing a leading human rights organisation to register as a “foreign agent”. 

In the spring of 2013 the Prosecutors Office ordered several Russian non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including the Human Rights Centre Memorial, Golos, Public Verdict and Jurix, which were in court today, to register as “foreign agents” under draconian new legislation introduced last year. 

Today Memorial lost its case. The hearings in the cases of the other three NGOs, Public Verdict, Golos and Jurix have been postponed. 

“The hearing was a grim farce. The court had the opportunity to uphold the right to freedom of association. Instead, it has helped the authorities put another nail in its coffin,” said Sergei Nikitin, Amnesty International’s Moscow Office Director. 

The “foreign agents” law, introduced more than a year ago, forces organizations which receive foreign funding and engage in loosely defined “political activities” to register as “an organization performing the functions of a foreign agent”. It gives the Russian authorities the power to impose hefty fines and severe administrative penalties if they fail to comply. 

This judgement comes as the Russian parliament is approving measures that will directly empower the government to register NGOs as “foreign agents” against their will, without having to apply, as currently, to the courts. 

Moscow-based Human Rights Centre Memorial was ordered to register under the new “foreign agents” law in March 2013 because, according to the Prosecutor’s Office, its publishing of human rights materials online “can be interpreted as political activity” which “shapes public opinion about state policy” and “is intended to influence decisions taken by state bodies”. 

“Today the court effectively endorsed the prosecution’s position that legitimate human rights work is a ‘political activity’ and those who engage in this should be branded ‘foreign agents’,” said Sergei Nikitin. 

The four organizations are adamant that they will not register as “foreign agents”. They intend to pursue their cases in the European Court of Human Rights.