Human Rights Defenders, the Ministry of Justice and the New ‘Laws’

10 January 2013 

Source: (info)
The law on NGOs has Ministry of Justice lawyers baffled. When asked by human rights defenders, the government agency could not define who it considers to be a ‘foreign agent’. 

The Russian Ministry of Justice is seriously perplexed by the new law on NGOs. In its correspondence with the Agora Human Rights Association, the Ministry stated that it was impossible to come to an unequivocal conclusion as to whether the organisation is a ‘foreign agent’. 

Agora plans to use the officials’ reply in its appeal to the Constitutional Court. 

Other human rights defenders believe that the developments prove that the law, which was passed amid serious controversy, is invalid. They claim that the Ministry of Justice’s lawyers do not know how to apply this absurd law in practice. 

The Ministry of Justice cannot say whether the Agora Association is a foreign agent, and whether it needs to be included in the corresponding register, a letter delivered to human rights activists on Wednesday states. 

Agora received the reply from First Deputy Minister Aleksandr Smirnov after the organisation’s chairman, Pavel Chikov, asked Ministry officials to clarify the provisions of the law on NGOs, which came into force at the end of November. 

The law, which was passed by the State Duma this summer, states that all human rights associations that receive financial support from abroad and take part in political activity should be placed on a register of organisations acting as ‘foreign agents’.

In the text of the law the concept of political activity is defined by the following, unclear wording: “A non-profit organisation, excluding political parties, shall be considered to be involved in political activity conducted in the Russian Federation if, regardless of the aims and objectives defined in its founding documents, it takes part (including through financing) in the organisation and realisation of political actions with the aim of influencing the decisions taken by state bodies, directed at changing government policy as implemented by these bodies, and also at shaping public opinion in furtherance of the stated aims.

The Ministry of Justice refused to provide clarification to Agora concerning the contentious law, citing its lack of authority to do so.

Moreover, the human rights defenders’ request for confirmation on whether Agora needs to be on the Ministry of Justice's new register also caused the agency difficulties.

The letter, signed by First Deputy Minister of Justice, Alexander Smirnov, states: “On the basis of the information you have presented it is not possible to come to an unequivocal conclusion as to whether the Agora Human Rights Association has the characteristics of a non-governmental organisation acting as a foreign agent”.

“The First Deputy Minister of Justice said that it is impossible to come to a conclusion about the presence of indications that the Agora Association is a foreign agent using the information that the Ministry of Justice holds about our activities. That means we are not a foreign agent”, Chikov explained to Gazeta.Ru.

The human rights activist added that since 2006 Agora has regularly given an account of its activities to the Ministry, so the Ministry of Justice cannot cite a lack of information.

The correspondence between Agora and the Ministry of Justice began back in September last year, when Chikov sent the government agency a request to clarify the unclear wording and to provide a more specific definition of the concept of the political activity in which ‘foreign agent’ NGOs might be involved in. At that point the Ministry of Justice initially refused to respond to the human rights defenders, citing the agency’s limited authority to do so.

Subsequently, Agora decided to write a new letter, this time asking officials at the agency whether the human rights activists had interpreted the law correctly. “We proved that, in our opinion, the law does not apply to us (on the basis of the activities we declare annually to the Ministry), and we asked whether we had applied the law correctly to ourselves. In other words, to all intents and purposes, we asked whether we should submit documents for inclusion on the register or not”, Chikov explained. The Ministry of Justice’s reply essentially repeated the government body’s previous letter; officials once more refused to answer the questions posed.

Unsatisfied with the correspondence with representatives at the Ministry, Agora decided to take the government agency to court.

The appeal to Zamoskvoretsky District Court, Chikov said, was registered on 29th December.

However, the third reply from the Ministry of Justice, which reached the human rights defenders on Wednesday, was dated 24th December. The head of Agora stated that “the reply was backdated, without a shadow of a doubt”.

Chikov explains the Ministry’s latest move as an attempt to give Zamoskvoretsky District Court a head start, as it can now refuse to approve Agora’s statement.

The grounds for refusal will be that the Ministry of Justice gave the human rights activists a “detailed, full and grounded reply” five days before their judicial recourse.

Nonetheless, Chikov was pleased with the new letter from the Ministry of Justice, and the head of the human rights association may use the document during proceedings at the Constitutional Court, where Agora will lodge a complaint concerning the violation of the principle of legal certainty. “This reply once again confirms that the wording is unspecific and unclear”, he said. “The Ministry of Justice clearly does not understand what constitutes a ‘foreign agent’, nor what it considers to be political activity, as well as other, more detailed issues, and, as a matter of fact, the Ministry of Justice is not concealing this”.

The Chairman of Agora recalled how, at meetings with representatives from human rights organisations, officials at the Ministry of Justice made it clear that the Ministry was not the initiator of the law and does not know how it should be applied.

“The Minister himself, [Aleksandr] Konovalov, in an interview with RIA Novosti, said it would take a year or two at least to understand how it would work in practice. In addition, Konovalov said that it would be up to the courts to decide the practical application of this law”, Chikov added.

Svetlana Gannushkina, Director of the Civic Assistance Committee and a board member of the Memorial Human Rights Centre, agreed that the Ministry of Justice does not want to apply the law on NGOs.

The human rights activist believes it is just as impossible for the qualified lawyers at the Ministry of Justice to apply the ridiculous law as it is for a mathematician “to accept that two times two equals five”.

“The law is inherently completely contradictory, anti-constitutional and absurd. The Ministry of Justice employs people with good legal reasoning, and what they are being instructed to apply is an insult to them. But the law has been passed, and the Ministry of Justice has got itself in a worse position than the ‘foreign agents’ themselves... Certain idiots, if you’ll excuse me, passed legislation which has no relation to law in the proper sense of the word, and it is the representatives of the law in this proper sense who will have to apply it!" Gannushkina said.

Nevertheless, she believes that the law on NGOs has already achieved its main purpose - society has been given a clear signal that human rights defenders are ‘foreign agents’, and therefore untrustworthy.

Gannushkina recalled how last November the words “Foreign agents found here” appeared on Memorial’s office building, alongside a picture of a heart and the American flag. “That’s how this law works. It works in the same way as fighter bombers do”, the activist concluded.

“Once again the authorities have proven that they don’t know what to do with this law”, director of the Movement For Human Rights, Lev Ponomarev, told Gazeta.Ru, in response to the Ministry of Justice’s reply to Agora.

“They put themselves in a stupid position. I expected this to happen, and it will be interesting to see how it develops” he added, stressing that his position has not changed, and that he will not apply to the Ministry of Justice to register his association as a ‘foreign agent’.

The United Russia politicians who drafted the law, Aleksandr Sidyakin and Irina Yarovaya, were not available for comment on Wednesday. Gazeta.Ru also could not reach any representatives from the State Duma Constitutional Law and Nation Building Committee, which supervised the law in the lower chamber of the Russian parliament.

The presidential administration is refusing to comment on the situation that has developed concerning the application of the law on NGOs, according to a Gazeta.Ru source at the presidential headquarters, Staraya Square.