Civil Society Activists "For Whom They Came" Comment on the Situation

16 September 2010

Source: (info)

· Freedom of Association · Human Rights Defenders · Public Prosecutor’s Office · Moscow City and Moscow Region

Earlier this week, the Moscow prosecutor's office formally requested documents from dozens of non-governmental organizations, posting on its website a short message stating that “a review of the observance of the Federal Law on non-profit organizations has begun in order to study the practice of law enforcement in relation to changes made in recent years in this legislation.” It might be supposed that this applies only to organizations that have (partial) foreign financing. Some of the civil society activists “for whom they came”, here comment on the situation.

Elena Panfilova, a member of the Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights, director of the Russian branch of Transparency International: "We also received a fax with an official request to provide documentation to the prosecutor’s office. By virtue of the fact that the fax contained some inaccuracies and incorrect information, in accordance with the rules, we yesterday responded with an official letter to our inter-district prosecutor's office asking that the information be clarified and that a new request be sent. If we consider the reply to be sufficient and reasonable, we will provide the information requested, there is nothing secret in it. So far we have not received a response, either by phone or letter.

So far as I know, Moscow's human rights ombudsman Aleksandr Muzykantsky is preparing an official request to the Moscow prosecutor's office, and the Public Council of the prosecutor’s office is also trying to figure out what it all means. You and I together could probably come up with about 100 different versions as to why this is happening. What does the message on the website of the Moscow prosecutor's office about ‘studying the practice of law enforcement’ mean? How deeply are they going to study it? Why such urgency? For example, we were given two hours to gather together all the required information. This could be simply anything. On the one hand it really could be some kind of ‘urgent inspection’, which, for example, the General Prosecutor’s Office has demanded that they conduct. Or it could be something else. I don’t really like this business of fortune telling.”

Liliya Shibanova, executive director of Voice: “An official request came from the inter-district prosecutor's office for us to provide virtually all the documents relating to our charter, our finances, and so on. We believe this is illegal. NGOs should be checked by Ministry of Justice. Most likely, the instruction came from some official body, and a very tough one. This is an indicator of some large-scale campaign that takes the form of pressure on us. We provided the documents. We realized when we were at the inter-district prosecutor's office that all our documentation would be taken to the city prosecutor’s office. Probably, out of all the organizations that submitted documents, some kind of selection will be made and in those selected cases further proceedings will begin.”

Elena Topoleva, a member of the Public Chamber of Russia, director of the Agency of Social Information: “Official requests were sent out to quite different organizations, working in quite different areas. The only thing they have in common is that they all have some kind of foreign funding or other. Apart from the human rights groups, there are, for example, the Institute for Urban Economics, the Centre for Fiscal Policy, Achievements of Youth and Sustainable Development. So far as I know, there are no less than one hundred organizations. 

Lawyers at Agora believe that what is being done is illegal. As someone who is not a lawyer, it seems to me very strange and incomprehensible why the review is being carried out by the prosecutor's office, and not the Ministry of Justice. The prosecutor’s office, one would thing, should play a role when an organization is suspected of some legal violation. I do not really believe that this is a review of how NGOs comply with all the amendments to the legislation. There must be some other reason. For as long as I have worked in the non-profit sector, I have never met with such an extensive inspection. Yesterday we provided all the documents that we had been asked for. They came to our office in the afternoon the day before yesterday, and the documents had to be submitted yesterday at 11 o’clock. About three or four people made copies of all these documents until late into the night. It was also unpleasant that they came with a police officer.”

Daniel Meshcheryakov, programme coordinator of the Moscow Helsinki Group: "We believe that these actions are illegal, supervision of non-profit organizations is the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice. Prosecutors may conduct reviews in the event that they have information about crimes or legal violations. This inspection harms the normal work of a large number of organizations. Preparation of the list of documents that they request in an unrealistically short time, of course, is very time consuming and practically impossible.

We are providing them the documents as we get them ready. On the first day in the two hours which we had to prepare for the first visit to the prosecutor's office, we provided our statutes and those documents that we had already given to the Justice Ministry. Today we need to take the tenancy agreement, information about payments and minutes of meetings. Now it’s becoming a matter of routine that every day they ask us for a new set of documents. Naturally, this means that our accountancy department cannot work effectively. Someone all the time has to be going to the prosecutor's office, which is not very close to us. There are a mass of inconveniences on the technical side of all this.

I think this is some kind of demonstration to the organizations that the authorities have a lot of technical ways to inconvenience their daily work. Organizations are being inspected that receive foreign funding, or have difficult relations with the authorities.”

Yury Dzhibladze, president of the Centre for Democracy and Human Rights: “Formally, the law on the prosecutor's office gives prosecutors the right to conduct inspections not only in the event of a crime, but in way of supervision of the implementation of legislation. According to the law on non-profit organizations, supervision of these organizations is conducted by the Ministry of Justice. And there are procedures, however imperfect which must be observed: the organization must be notified of a forthcoming inspection five working days in advance, and a list of required documents must be provided. On the other hand, there is a law that protects the rights of legal entities during the inspection - the famous law that President Medvedev actively promoted to reduce the pressure on business. But this law does not cover inspections conducted by prosecutors. 

Under the law on the public prosecutor’s office, there are no clear rules governing inspections. But in this case for some reason the prosecutor’s office has taken over the normal tasks of the Ministry of Justice, and with a strange selectivity, and in a manner that one could equate with the seizure of documents. It is inexplicable why this inspection has to be conducted in such an extreme manner, as if with intent to frighten. The officials who are doing the work say their bosses have put them under a great deal of pressure. One of the inspectors said that in a few days’ time there will be, supposedly, some kind of crucial meeting on the fight against terrorism, and the task has been given to examine financial flows and possible support from abroad. There is information that one of the organizations was told that their documents were to be sent to the Ministry of Justice, the tax authorities and to the FSB.

Interviews by Aleksandr Litoi 
Novaya gazeta