Court declares a second NGO in Russia to be "foreign agent"

posted 2 Jun 2013, 13:10 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 3 Jun 2013, 00:01 ]
30 May 2013

Source: (info) 
On 29 May, a magistrate of Kostroma Judicial District No. 1, Dmitry Tretyakov, declared that the Kostroma Civic Initiatives Support Centre was guilty of "violating the rules governing an NGO's activity and of acting as a foreign agent" (Part 1, Article 19.34 of the Administrative Offences Code).

According to the Open Information Agency, the NGO has been given a fine in the order of 300,000 rubles. The Centre's Executive Director, Aleksandr Zamaryanov, has been fined 100 thousand rubles. The Kostroma NGO thus became the second organisation in Russia after the GOLOS Association to be declared a ‘foreign agent’ by a court. This ruling will be appealed, said lawyer Ramil Akhmetgaliev, a legal analyst at the Interregional Human Rights Association Agora who is representing the interests of the Kostroma Civic Initiatives Support Centre foundation.

"Today's statement by the Public Prosecutor once again highlights the absurdity of this whole law 'On foreign agents' and, most importantly, that it is being directed against any and all civic activity," said lawyer Ramil Akhmetgaliev. "In particular, the Public Prosecutor said today that political activity shall be understood to mean "joining a civic association" (Part 1 of Article 30 of the Russian Constitution), "seeking, obtaining, transmitting, producing and disseminating information by any lawful means" (Part 4 of Article 29 of the Constitution) and "familiarisation with documents and materials held by government bodies that directly affect the rights and freedoms of the individual" (Part 2 of Article 24 of the Constitution). This means that the exercise of constitutional rights in any form by civic associations constitutes a political activity, according to the Public Prosecutor's Office. Indeed, the mere fact of such an association is considered political.

"When it all started and they made this ruling against us, I thought that the whole thing had been a misunderstanding – a mistake – and that certain public prosecutors had been mistaken and had misinterpreted the law," says Nikolai Sorokin, Chairman of the Board of the NGO. "The more I saw what was going on, I began to realise that this was no misinterpretation of the law, but part of a campaign that was being run in the Kostroma region against NGOs and civic initiatives. It is clear that all this time, whilst the case was being heard in the magistrate's court, the security services were at work. Moreover, the Public Prosecutor's Office itself was engaged in intimidation; they visited reporters and landlords, asking, "Why are you working with the NGO?" It would be hard to describe this as anything other than the application of pressure. We have not given way to pressure. They then began to use other security agencies. Centre 'E' began to interrogate those involved, asking, "Why did you go to the ‘round tables’?" Centre 'E' was not up to the task. The Department of Economic Security of the regional Ministry of Internal Affairs was brought in. They demanded that organisations that had worked with us hand over all of their documents immediately. When an RIA Novosti journalist queried on what basis the inspection was being carried out, the official response she received was that the Ministry of Internal Affairs had not carried out any inspection of our Centre. But if it turns out that they are inspecting all of these organisations, then why are they not asking them for any other documents – except in the case of our NGO? It means that the Ministry of Internal Affairs is toying with the press, and it has become a tool in the hands of the Public Prosecutor's Office. Meanwhile, the public prosecutors knew that there were no legal grounds for involving us. The lawyer destroyed all of their arguments in court, and members of the Public Prosecutor's Office looked quite deflated in there.

The lawyer Akhmetgaliev announced today in court that he would be sending a request to the Constitutional Court of Russia regarding the interpretation and application of the law on "foreign agents". The Deputy Public Prosecutor of Kostroma, Aleksandr Smirnov, asked the court to dismiss the motion. On returning from his chambers, magistrate Dmitry Tretyakov agreed with the Public Prosecutor and declined to send the request to the Russian Constitutional Court.

The Public Prosecutor's Office has accused the Centre of not entering the register of NGOs acting as a foreign agent. Lawyer Akhmetgaliev told the court that the Centre had not received foreign funding since the ‘foreign agents’ NGO law had come into effect, and that the law did not have retroactive effect. The lawyer clarified that the Civic Initiatives Support Centre did not engage in political activities, had not organised election 'monitoring', had not arranged to visit the official delegation of the US Embassy and was not actively attempting to change government policy. Lawyer Ahmetgaliev also noted that the Kostroma Prosecutor's Office had broken the law when it inspected the NGO.

The key argument behind the claims of the Kostroma Public Prosecutor, Senior Counsellor of Justice Vladimir Smirnov, against the Kostroma Civic Initiatives Support Centre was the 'round table' ‘Resetting the reset: where are Russian-American relations heading?’, which was organised and run by the Chairman of the Board of the NGO, Nikolai Sorokin, on 28 February. In the Kostroma Public Prosecutor's ruling about initiating proceedings on an administrative offence, it stated that this meeting had included discussion of, "among other things, the problematic issues affecting international relations between Russia and the US" and that "the Deputy Minister-Counsellor for Political Affairs at the US Embassy in Russia, Howard Solomon, had spoken on the subject of the political course of Russia, the political course of the US and about relations between these states."

Public Prosecutor Smirnov also reported that in 2011, 2012 and 2013 the Foundation had “received regular funding from foreign sources, including from within the US."

"The aforementioned actions of the Foundation suggest that financing was obtained from foreign sources with the aim of carrying out political activities, meaning that the Kostroma Civic Initiatives Support Centre foundation NGO is a foreign agent," concluded the Prosecutor of Kostroma.

As of this time, according to the Agora Association, the Public Prosecutor's Office and the Ministry of Justice consider 50 NGOs from 25 regions of Russia to be "foreign agents". A continually updated list of such NGOs can be found here.