Human rights defenders criticize proposed amendments to 'foreign agent' law

posted 9 Feb 2015, 05:55 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 9 Feb 2015, 06:06 ]
5 February 2015

Source: (info)
Human rights defenders believes that amendments to the law on NGOs sent to the Duma by President Putin are inadequate. Not all NGOs included in the register of ‘foreign agents’ will use the procedure that allows non-profits designated as ‘foreign agents’ to leave the register, Rosbalt reports, citing RBK.

Agora Human Rights Association intends to “test every procedure on itself," in order to understand how it works, according to its chair Pavel Chikov. However, Chikov points out that the language used in the bill must be improved. “A condition for leaving the register is stated to be the absence of foreign funding and (or) engagement in political activity,” Chikokv says. “But what if Agora does not receive foreign funding, but, in the opinion of the prosecutors, continues to engage in political activity? Taking into account the fact that prosecutors consider any activity to be political, then it would be necessary to do absolutely nothing for a whole year. But then the Ministry of Justice will take you to court on the grounds that your organization has ceased to function.”

Co-chair of Golos, Grigory Melkonyants, says: ‘We have to wait for the reaction the bill gets in the State Duma. Only then will we be able to understand if it is worth engaging in the procedure to leave the register. ‘Given the way the system of working with NGOs has been constructed, I’m afraid this bill won’t bring about any improvement. The procedure to exit the list should have been written into the law from the very beginning. These cosmetic changes that are being introduced now won’t help. The entry that is made in the register on the website of the Ministry of Justice is permanent. After being removed from the register all that will happen is that a note will be added that such-and-such an NGO has been removed,’ Grigoryants believes.

Member of the board of the International Memorial Society Aleksandr Cherkasov told RBK that he has read the amendments, but believes that it is not possible to make the law on ‘foreign agents’ better. ‘The law is tainted in its essence, it includes two false notions. First – receiving a grant does not mean that an organization gets an order what to do. Second, what those who enforce the law call political activity is not in fact political activity.’ Cherkasov also pointed out that he does not understand for what period of time an NGO will be obliged to return funds it has received from a foreign donor.

Lev Ponomarev, director of the Movement For Human Rights did not give a definitive answer to the question as to whether his organization is ready to apply to be removed from the register. He has not yet seen the amendment in question, but believes that  a procedure involving the return of funds to a donor would be humiliating.

‘Foreign funding is not banned by law, and therefore we don’t intend to refuse it,’ says Natalya Taubina, director of Public Verdict Foundation. Taubina says that her organization does not consider itself to be engaged in political activity and intends to prove this in court.

Press secretary of Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg Aleksandr Peredruk told RBK that his organization intends to use all legal means to ‘get rid of the “agent” label’. Currently the NGO is contesting in court both the prosecutors’ inspection and their involuntary inclusion in the register.

At the time of writing there are 36 organizations listed in the ‘foreign agent’ register. Under the current law, NGOs designated ‘foreign agents’ face a double punishment. If prosecutors determine that an organization receiving foreign funding is engaged in political activity, the NGO must register as a ‘foreign agent’. For refusing to register, an NGO can ultimately face criminal prosecution. 

Meanwhile since June 2014 the Ministry of Justice has had the power to include an NGO involuntarily in the ‘foreign agent’ register. This amendment to the law on NGOs was introduced on the initiative of member of the Federation Council Andrei Klishas, with the backing of the president.

Russian NGOs have frequently expressed their disagreement with the law and appealed against it in various instances, including an application to the European Court of Human Rights. Human rights defenders stress that the law has a clearly discriminatory character and the historical context in which it is being applied is extremely negative.