Nyet: Rights Groups Vow to Break Russia’s ‘Foreign Agent’ Law

Tom Balmforth . Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.Nov 21 2012,

A contentious new law requiring NGOs to register themselves as “foreign agents” has prompted a campaign of civil disobedience.

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A protester shouts as she is restrained by police during a demonstration to defend Article 31 of the Russian constitution, which grants the right to free assembly, in Moscow on July 31, 2012. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)


MOSCOW — This week, many leading Russian activists announced that they intend to break the law. Some of the country’s most venerable human rights groups are refusing to comply with legislation going into effect on November 21 requiring  nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) receiving funding from abroad to  register themselves as “foreign agents.” The law applies only to NGOs  engaged in vaguely defined “political activity.”
Lyudmila Alekseyeva, the 85-year-old founder of the Moscow Helsinki  Group, Russia’s oldest rights organization, describes the law as  “absurd” and says she will not comply.

“This is the first time when human rights workers — people who follow  the law — are deviating from the letter of the law,” she says. “This  law forces us into an impossible situation. We can’t register as foreign agents as the law requires because it would mean presenting false  information.” According to press reports, dozens of groups are joining the  civil-disobedience campaign, including the independent election monitor  Golos, the corruption watchdog Transparency International, and the  rights organizations Agora, Civic Assistance, and For Human Rights.

But top Russian officials insist the law will be fully implemented. “I  can only say that the law has been adopted and needs to be observed,”  Sergei Naryshkin, speaker of the State Duma, warned on November 19. It remains unclear what comes next in the standoff. Alekseyeva, for one, was unsure. “Let’s just wait and see,” she says,  adding that she would appeal any sanctions to the European Court of  Human Rights in Strasbourg. According to the law, the authorities can suspend an NGO’s activities  for up to six months if it fails to comply with the legislation.

In  addition to registration, the law also requires organizations to  identify themselves as foreign agents in the services they provide and  on all their official literature. Law ‘Unclear’ The law also provides for fines of between 100,000 and 300,000 rubles  ($3,200-$9,600) for organizations that do not comply and smaller fines  for individuals. Repeat offenders face criminal prosecution. Oleg Orlov, head of the Memorial rights group, says the law is  “completely unclear.”

He declines to say how far he will go in his  boycott. Yevgeny Arkhipov, a lawyer who deals in human rights cases, says there  is indeed ambiguity in the law, but that its implementation will  eventually be based on precedent. He is not optimistic about the  prospects for the boycott. “I think in all probability the NGOs will be  hit with sanctions,” he says. “They will be fined and they will be  brought to criminal accountability. There will be a conflict.” The deadline for organizations to register as a foreign agent was November 20.
The law on NGOs was rushed through the State Duma this summer in tandem  with a series of bills that opposition activists linked to a broader  crackdown in response to a wave of anti-Kremlin protests. Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin says the law puts the  authorities in a win-win situation: Groups that fail to comply can be  targeted and sanctioned, while those that do comply discredit  themselves.

On November 21, a Facebook user posted a picture of the front door of the For Human Rights organization, where someone  had spray-painted graffiti reading “foreign agent” and “I Love the  U.S.A.” Similar graffiti was also daubed on Memorial’s building.


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