Russian human rights activists have called on the European Union to step up pressure on Moscow to reverse its policy of crackdown on independent NGOs, provide protection to persecuted Russian civic activists and “drastically” increase support, including financial aid to civil society in the country.
These demands made by a group of leading Russian human rights defenders on an advocacy trip to Brussels on 3-4 June for meetings with EU representatives, come with the launch of a new report outlining the impact of Russia’s crackdown on the country’s non-governmental organisations.
Brussels-based International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) acting together with an international coalition of human rights groups, the Civic Solidarity Platform (CSP) released the report – “The Judicial Dimension of the NGO Crackdown” which relates to the application by courts of the notorious “foreign agents” law that entered into force in Russia in November 2012.
The report covers a ten-month period of court hearings against scores of Russian NGOs, which have been required to register as “foreign agents” for receiving foreign funding and allegedly engaging in “political activities”.
Yuri Dzhibladze, one of the Russian human rights activists who visited Brussels, explained that a massive wave of intrusive and often paralyzing inspections carried out by prosecutors and other government officials after the entry into force of the “foreign agents” law targeted over a thousand NGOs. Following these inspections, 25 organizations were warned of “violations” for failing to register as “foreign agents”, while a further 75 NGOs were notified they would be required to register if they continued their “political activities”. Organizations found guilty of failing to register under the “foreign agents” law may face fines of up to €10,000 and two years’ imprisonment for their leaders.
The report focuses on court proceedings involving seven leading Russian human rights NGOs, which were monitored by independent observers from IPHR and the CSP. It concludes that the “foreign agents” law imposes “excessive and unnecessary” requirements on NGOs, with “overly harsh” and grossly disproportionate penalties for non-compliance.
So far, three Russian NGOs that have faced court proceedings under the “foreign agents” law have been forced to close to avoid harsh penalties for non-compliance with the law. Others have seen time and resources being taken away from their ongoing work due to lengthy court proceedings. NGOs have also had their reputation severely damaged and their interaction with various institutions and experts curtailed because of the Kremlin’s hostile rhetoric with officials accusing NGOs of serving foreign interests, meddling in politics and undermining Russia’s sovereignty. In some cases, NGOs have engaged in self-censorship as it is impossible for them to predict which of their activities may be qualified as “political activity”, a term broadly defined by courts to include practically any type of NGO work.
“We are witnessing an unprecedented campaign by the Russian government aimed at stifling independent scrutiny of its human rights record”, stated Brigitte Dufour, director of IPHR, which hosted the visiting Russian human rights defenders. “At this time, international solidarity with our Russian colleagues is crucial, and we continue to call on the EU and other key actors to support the victims of the current Russian NGO crackdown in all ways possible”, continued Ms. Dufour, who also has monitored several NGO trials in Moscow.
Much to the chagrin of the Russian government, NGOs targeted under the 2012 law have categorically refused to register as “foreign agents,” which in the Russian language would be tantamount to an admission of espionage.
“Russian NGOs strongly disagree with this repressive law as it contradicts the Russian Constitution and Russia’s international human rights obligations. Civil society groups unanimously refuse to accept the false and highly derogatory label of “foreign agents”. We are nobody’s agents and act according to our own mission and in the interests of the Russian public and the constituencies we serve,” says Ms. Natalya Taubina, director of the Public Verdict Foundation who was part of the delegation visiting Brussels.
The Public Verdict Foundation, a leading Russian group addressing the wide-spread problem of torture and abuse in the law enforcement bodies, is itself in the middle of a court battle, having appealed against a prosecutor’s order to register as a “foreign agent”.
While the report does not question the procedural fairness of most of the proceedings, it says, the “foreign agents” law “is couched in terms that are vague and liable to an overly broad interpretation. The result, as shown in the report, is inconsistent application of the law by the Russian courts.”
Instead of fulfilling their function of “providing scrutiny to guarantee the unhindered exercise” of the right to freedom of association, courts have “chosen to “rubber stamp” the prosecutor’s charges. In some cases courts, it adds, have “failed to properly examine evidence” in breach of the right to a fair hearing.
It also reveals “conflicting” judicial practice of Russian courts in applying the law with the same type of activities branded as “political” by some courts but not by others.
The document, copies of which have been handed to the EU officials, says it is “hard to see any reasonable and objective justification” for what it brands as “unwarranted interference” with freedom of expression in the enforcement of the “foreign agents” law.
Speaking on Wednesday, Mr Dzhibladze, president of the Centre for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights, predicted that “many more” NGOs may have to shut down unless the law is repealed.
“These are organisations that cover everything from human rights advocacy to environmental protection to election observation and, in the absence of independent media and genuine political opposition, are the only outlet for those opposed to current Russian policy.”
He adds, “We are therefore asking the EU to put more pressure on the Russian government to repeal this repressive and draconian law. The EU should not just speak about war and peace but also continually raise concerns about fundamental rights and freedoms in Russia”.
The Moscow-based activist also stressed the importance of “dramatically increasing” the amount the EU allocates to support civil society in Russia. Currently, this amounts to €4m annually for Russian NGOs compared with €35m for the EU’s six Eastern Neighbourhood Partnership countries.
“It is ten times higher for ENP countries and let’s remember that the population of Russia is 140m compared with 70m in the ENP states,” he said.
Maria Suchkova, a Moscow-based human rights lawyer who is one of the authors of the new report and who also was a member of the delegation visiting Brussels, said, “The “foreign agents” law as applied in the cases we reviewed is clearly in contradiction with Russia’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and, in particular, in violation of freedom of expression and freedom of association.”
The three activists were in Brussels at the invitation of International Partnership for Human Rights to meet officials from the European Commission and the European External Action Service, as well as member state representatives as part of an ongoing campaign aimed at bringing about a repeal of the controversial Russian NGO legislation.
Read the new report