Today, an application is being lodged with the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of eleven leading Russian human rights NGOs to contest the recently introduced 'Foreign Agent' Law. They allege that this Law violates their rights to freedom of association and expression (Articles 11 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)), and request that the European Court gives urgent priority to their case. The case is being brought by the Russian NGO 'Memorial' and the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC), based at Middlesex University.
The Law was passed in November 2012 and has established a new classification of NGOs in Russia, the 'Foreign Agent'. Under this Law, if an NGO receives foreign funding and is engaged in 'political activity' then it must register as a 'Foreign Agent' and is then subject to significant reporting restrictions and regulations. Any materials or resources produced by the NGO must be labelled as having been produced by a 'Foreign Agent'.
The case is brought on behalf of Ecodefence, Golos, Citizens Watch, Civic Assistance Committee, the Committee against Torture, Mashr, International Memorial, Moscow Helsinki Group, Public Verdict, Memorial Human Rights Group and the Movement for Human Rights. Significantly, it is widely felt that the organisation Golos ("Voice"), which conducts independent election monitoring, was a contributor to the recent surge in the protest movement in Russia, which in turn led to legislative restrictions including the Law on Foreign Agents. The NGOs argue that the Law unnecessarily and unjustifiably puts them at risk of serious sanctions, including criminal prosecutions of individuals and the possible suspension of their organisations.
The applicants also say that the term 'Foreign Agent' has very negative connotations in Russia due to its association with the word 'spy' in the Russian language, which will therefore affect their reputations and their ability to function effectively. The lack of a clear definition of 'political activity' in the Russian legislation is also contested as it is believed that it could lead to the arbitrary application of the law by the authorities.
As well as impacting on the eleven NGOs named in this application, it is also argued that the 'Foreign Agent' Law will affect more than one thousand NGOs across Russia.
"This is a very repressive law which directly threatens the integrity and the activites of Russian NGOs which play an absolutely vital role in scrutinising and monitoring the State. We urge the Strasbourg Court to move quickly to strike it down," said Philip Leach, EHRAC.
Comments from the United Russia party include:
President Putin: "[..] they are allegedly our national NGOs but in substance working for foreign money plays the music ordered by a foreign state [..] We have to shield ourselves from that interference with our internal affairs"
Mikhail Starshinov (the co-author of the law, member of the State Duma, and delegate of the United Russia party): "some political technologies [..] allow the destruction of the constitutional order of states with the use of NGOs and similar structures"
The United Russia party: "those NGOs which are engaged in political activity and are paid from abroad must have the status of foreign agent so the public can see who implants ideas into their minds and who pays for their work"
Comments from International NGOs include:
Hugh Williamson, Director of the European and Central Asian programme of Human Rights Watch: "This disingenuous claim by President Putin and his swift signing of the amendments, despite domestic and international criticism, show his lack of respect for Russia's international human rights obligations [..] The new law seriously undermines free assembly in Russia."
John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's Director for Europe and Central Asia: "This bill appears to have no other purpose than to set hurdles for many of the leading NGOs critical of the government and to make it even more difficult for them to operate in Russia. It should be repealed immediately"