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Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights suggests revision of Russia's NGO legislation

July 23, 2013, 17:38 UTC+3

"Broad and vague character of the definition of 'political activity' used in the law [allows] for its arbitrary interpretation" he claims

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MOSCOW, July 23. /ITAR-TASS/. Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights calls for changes to the recently adopted law on "Foreign Agents", which introduced new regulations for politically-active NGO's which receive foreign funding.

Official website of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights has published the full statement, according to which Commissioner Nils Muižnieks expressed his concerns that, among other things, "broad and vague character of the definition of 'political activity' used in the law [allows] for its arbitrary interpretation."

Moreover, "the use of the term 'foreign agent' (‘inostranniy agent’) is of particular concern to the organizations affected by the implementation of the Law on Foreign Agents, since it has usually been associated in the Russian historical context with the notion of a 'foreign spy' and/or a 'traitor' and thus carries with it a connotation of ostracism or stigma."

Finally, "the possibility of applying criminal charges for 'malevolent' non-compliance with the Law interfere with the free exercise of the rights to freedom of association and freedom of expression as defined in the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights." The Commissioner for Human Rights believes that "these provisions should be fundamentally revised, if not repealed.  The same applies to the new definition of treason following the 2012 amendments."

Muižnieks suggests that "Reporting and accounting requirements should be the same for all NGOs, regardless of the sources of their income...The grounds for an NGO’s dissolution should be limited to the three recognized by international standards: bankruptcy; long-term inactivity; and serious misconduct. They should apply equally to all types of NGOs, and be subject to full procedural guarantees."


The essence of law on NGOs 

The latest version of the law on the NGOs, containing the term “NGOs performing the functions of a foreign agent” was adopted in summer of 2012. The “foreign agent” tag is attached to any organization which is involved in "political activities" and receives money from overseas. The notion of political activity includes even “shaping of public opinion” as it might influence decisions taken by the authorities. The NGOs branded as foreign agents must be entered into a special register of the Justice Ministry. According to supporters of this law, it largely copies the rules of the American law on the registration of foreign agents.


How the law is practised 

The first wave of enforcement of this law resulted in sweeping inspections of NGOs throughout March of 2013. At the time, human rights activists slammed these inspections as obtrusive and illegal. Overall, the prosecutors’ offices scrutinized around 1,000 NGOs; as a result, some of them were instructed to be registered as foreign agents. For instance, human rights organization Memorial, association for support the voters and transparent elections Golos and human rights organization Agora found themselves on this list. Moreover, some NGOs were ordered to pay fines up to 500,000 rubles. Dozens of other organizations received official warnings from the prosecutors.


NGOs' response 

Some of the high-profile NGOs decided to fight these decisions through the judicial system. In total, eight organizations lodged appeals with a Moscow court in which they asked the it to acknowledge that prosecutors' inspections and demands that these organizations be registered as "foreign agents" were illegitimate. A majority of these organizations said they would also challenge the prosecutor's demand for disclosing documents on NGO activities.

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