Justice Minister Konovalov defends the ‘correctness’ of pursuing NGOs

posted 3 Mar 2016, 07:47 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 3 Mar 2016, 07:55 ]
26 February 2016

Source: HRO.org (info)
Photo: Wikipedia

General Aleksandr Konovalov, head of the RF Ministry of Justice, is convinced that the ministry ‘is correctly interpreting the concept of political activity by NGOs in accordance with the existing legislation,’ Article 20 reports, with reference to the news agency TASS.

‘We consider that we are interpreting the concept correctly, and ongoing court practice supports this,’ he replied to journalists in answer to a request to comment on the recent statement by Ella Pamfilova, the RF Ombudsman for human rights, who described the liquidation of the Agora human rights organization as part of a worrying trend, and suggested that it had been possible because of a broad interpretation by the Ministry of Justice of the concept of political activity by an NGO.

‘If the courts give us a different signal, we shall change our practice’ Konovalov, minister of justice, added. And he emphasized that that ‘the ministry is always prepared to listen to concerns and suggestions from human rights activists’. Konovalov, the minister, worked for many years in the Prosecutor’s Office, moving up from investigator to become the Prosecutor of the Bashkir republic.

The serious victimization of NGOs began with the law on NGOs as ‘foreign agents’ which was adopted in 2012. It obliges an NGO, engaged in political activity and receiving foreign funding, to enter itself in a special register as a ‘foreign agent’. Such ‘foreign agent’ NGOs are obliged to cite this as their status when publishing materials in the Internet or media, are obliged to provide frequent additional reports of their activity, to pay for annual audits, and so on. NGOs are subject to an avalanche of fines, starting from a minimum of 300,000 (!) roubles [£3,000].

International Memorial Society, in its special statement, emphasized that ‘…The conceptual framework of the law on “foreign agents” is not based on the principle of the rule of law. The law does not provide an answer to a single problem. The aims of its initiators were highly political and opportunistic, and its formulation remains, deliberately, legally vague and opaque…. The law on “foreign agents” in effect lays the presumption of guilty on an artificially singled out group of organizations….’

Russian NGOs have repeatedly voiced their disagreement with the law and have appealed against it, including to the European Court on Human Rights. Human rights activists have emphasized that the law is of a clearly discriminatory character and reflects a very negative historical environment. However, discrimination against independent non-commercial organizations is continuing in Russia.

The so-called law on ‘foreign agents’ has come under repeated criticism from the NGOs themselves, from the President’s Council for the development of civil society and human rights (CHR), and from the leaders of international human rights institutions. The chair of the CHR, Mikhail Fedotov, has called for a more precise definition of the concept of ‘political activity’. The lack of a precise definition, in his view, is responsible for roughly 70 different kinds of activities being described as ‘political’.

In January 2016 the Ministry of Justice presented the NGOs with its proposed draft legislation on political activity. According to this, an NGO is considered to be participating in political activity on the territory of the RF if it carries out ‘activity relating to the state and the constitutional order of the Russian Federation, the federal structure of the RF, the guaranteeing of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia, of legality, of law and order, security, and the defence of the country; also included are foreign policy, the integrity and stability of the political system, the socio-economic and national development of the RF’, and, further, if the activity is carried out ‘with the aim of influencing the design and execution of state policies, or the appointments to state institutions and local self-government institutions, and their decisions and actions’.

The ways in which such activities are carried out are listed. A similar piece of draft legislation was put before the Duma in February by a group of deputies from all factions.

Experts point out that the repressive policy currently being conducted in relation to NGOs in Russia may have been deployed as a means of removing all active independent non-governmental structures and replacing them with ‘sham’ pseudo-NGOs.

Translated by Mary McAuley