Rights Group Slams Order to Register as ‘Foreign Agent’

Kremlin and Moscow Environs Aerial View

(RIA Novosti – MOSCOW, April 30, 2013) Prosecutors in Russia’s republic of Tatarstan have ordered the Agora human rights group, which has provided legal assistance to people detained at anti-Kremlin protests, to register as a “foreign agent,” a demand it has dismissed as “unlawful.”

Under a controversial law approved by President Vladimir Putin last year, NGOs funded from abroad and engaged in “political” activities are required to register as “foreign agents,” or face fines of up to 500,000 rubles ($16,000) for NGOs and up to 300,000 rubles ($10,000) for NGO directors.

Agora spokesman Dmitry Kolbasin confirmed that the organization received funding from abroad, but said the nature of its activities did not require it to register as a “foreign agent.”

“Providing legal assistance to people detained at protests cannot be considered political,” he told RIA Novosti. “The demands are unfounded and unlawful and we will appeal.”

NGOS have said the term “foreign agent” is a virtual synonym for “spy” and will discredit them in the eyes of the public. The author of the bill, United Russia lawmaker Alexander Sidyakin, denied this in an interview with RIA Novosti last year.

Last week, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) revealed that several environmental groups in Russia have been classified as “foreign agents” by prosecutors for alleged political activity.

Another high-profile NGO, the Golos independent elections watchdog, was fined 300,000 rubles ($10,000) last week for failing to register as a “foreign agent.” The watchdog’s head, Liliya Shibanova, was fined 100,000 rubles ($3,000).

Golos has challenged the Kremlin on a number of occasions, notably during the disputed 2011 parliamentary elections, when alleged vote fraud in favor of Putin’s United Russia party sparked mass protests.

The fines were slammed by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, who called the rulings “an alarming indicator for the future of civil society in Russia” in a joint statement.

Putin defended the law in his live Q&A session last week.

“Let them say where they got the money, how much money, and how they spent it! What’s wrong with that?” he said.

Putin claimed earlier this month that Russian NGOs had received almost $1 billion in foreign funding in 2013, but the Kremlin has so far declined to give details.

Russia’s General Prosecutor’s Office denied on Tuesday allegations by NGOS of a widespread check of their activities, saying just 0.5 percent of registered NGOs had been inspected in Moscow and less than 1 percent in St. Petersburg.