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Court fines Golos Association and director as ‘foreign agents’ - reports

25 April 2013 

Vera Vasilieva 

On 25 April 2013 a Moscow court found the Golos Association for the Protection of Voters’ Rights guilty of ‘violating the rules regulating a non-profit organization that functions as a foreign agent’ (Article 19.34, Section 1, of the Administrative Code). The magistrate sitting in Moscow’s Presnensky district magistrates court No. 379, Elena Semenchenok, fined the Golos Association 300,000 roubles. The executive director of of the organization, Liliya Shibanova, was fined 100,000 roubles. Golos became the first non-profit human rights organization in Russia to feel the impact of the new law on ‘foreign agents’.

The court hearing took place in the building of Moscow’s Presnensky district court since the premises of the magistrate’s court could not hold all those attending. Nonetheless, half an hour before the start of the hearing a long line of those wishing to attend the hearing formed on the steps outside the building.

‘Foreign agents can enter without queuing,’ someone joked as deputy director of Golos, Grigory Melkonyants, hurried into the courtroom.

Apart from participants in the hearing, there were more than 50 people in attendance – human rights defenders and journalists. Those who came to support their colleagues from Golos included Ludmila Alekseeva, chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Oleg Orlov, member of the Memorial Human Rights Centre, Lev Ponomarev, executive director of the movement For Human Rights, and Yury Dzhibladze, head of the Centre for the Development of Democracy & Human Rights.

The first court hearing was on the charges against the Golos Association that monitors violations during elections. Golos was accused, according to the representative of the Ministry of Justice, Tatyana Vaghina, of receiving funding from abroad to conduct political activities. Tatyana Vaghina pointed out that the regional branch of Golos had developed a draft Election Code which, in her opinion, confirmed the guilt of the NGO.

The "funding from abroad" in question is the Andrei Sakharov prize, awarded to Golos by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee for its achievements in the field of human rights and democratic development.

The lawyer Ramil Akhmetgaliev, a legal expert with the Agora Human Rights Association, tried to ask Tatyana Vaghina questions, but the court refused to allow almost all of them.

In turn the lawyer stated that charging Golos of actions carried out by another legal entity – the Regional Public Organization – was not lawful.

Moreover, Ramil Akhmetgaliev demonstrated to the court the bank documents confirming that the NGO had rejected the financial part of the award and had returned the money to the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. Golos, moreover, after the award of the prize informed the Norwegian Helsinki Committee that it could not accept the money precisely because of the new law on ‘foreign agents’. The funds were returned from the transit account of the bank. The money never reached the bank accounts of Golos. The Norwegian Helsinki Committee recognized that it had transferred the award money by mistake.

All this was confirmed by the representative of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, who spoke at the court as a witness.

The human rights defenders present in the courtroom in whispers began to recall the situation in 1958 in the USSR when the authorities demanded that Boris Pasternak refuse to accept the Nobel Prize for his novel Doctor Zhivago.

Ramil Akhmetgaliev also pointed out that the law on ‘foreign agents’ does not define the notion of ‘political activity’. On these grounds he requested that the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation review the law in terms of its lawfulness. However, Elena Semenchenok refused this request.

All the words spoken were only audible to those who managed to find a seat in the front rows. The judge literally whispered. At the request of one of those attending to speak louder she responded in an idiosyncratic way: "You are not a participant in this court hearing. If you interfere in the court proceedings one more time, you will be removed from the court."

After a short time spent in the retiring room, Elena Semenchenok issued her judgment: Golos is guilty, and is a ‘foreign agent’. The NGO must pay a fine of 300,000 roubles.

About half an hour later, the second court hearing began, this time considering the charges against Liliya Shbanova, executive director of Golos. Already none of those present had any doubt as to the outcome of this hearing.

Tatyana Vaghina repeated the same arguments. Ramil Akhmetgaliev, among other things, stressed that Liliya Shbanova was the manager of the organization, and herself was subordinate to those who headed the organization whose instructions she was obliged to carry out.

The result was that she was fined 100,000 roubles.

Ramil Akhmetgaliev and Liliya Shibanova stated after the end of the court session that they intend to appeal against the decisions handed down by Judge Semenchenok on the grounds that they are unlawful and without basis. The Golos Association remains determined not to register as a ‘foreign agent.’