Russia: Government against Rights Groups

In 2012 Russia’s parliament adopted a law that required nongovernmental organizations (NGO)s to register as "foreign agents" with the Ministry of Justice if they engage in “political activity” and receive foreign funding. The definition of “political activity” under the law is so broad and vague that it can extend to all aspects of advocacy and human rights work. Initially, the law required all respective NGOs to request the Ministry to have them registered and implied legal consequences for failure to do so. Because in Russia “foreign agent” can be interpreted only as “spy” or “traitor,” there is little doubt that the law aims to demonize and marginalize independent advocacy groups. Russia’s vibrant human rights groups resolutely boycotted the law, calling it “unjust” and “slanderous.”

In early March 2013 the Russian government launched a nationwide campaign of intrusive inspections of hundreds of NGOs to identify advocacy groups the government deems “foreign agents” and force them to register as such.

After the inspection wave, at least 55 groups received warnings not to violate the law and at least 20 groups received official notices of violation directly requiring them to register as “foreign agents.” Also, the prosecutor’s office and Ministry of Justice filed at least 12 administrative cases against NGOs for failure to abide by the “foreign agents” law and at least six administrative cases against NGO leaders. Additionally, the prosecutors brought civil law suits against six NGOs for failure to register under the law.

Since the law entered into force, numerous rights groups challenged the prosecutor’s office and the Ministry of Justice in courts; most lost their cases. As a result, by October 2014 at least six groups chose to shut down rather than wear the shameful “foreign agent” label, including Anti-Discrimination Center (ADC) Memorial in Saint-Petersburg, two Golos election watchdogs (Golos Association and Regional Golos), JURIX (Lawyers for Constitutional Rights and Freedoms), Side by Side LGBT Festival, and one other that asked not to be named.

In August 2013, Russia’s then-federal ombudsman Vladimir Lukin, acting on behalf of four organizations and their leaders who were affected by the law, challenged the law in Russia’s Constitutional Court. On April 8, 2014 Russia’s Constitutional Court upheld the law, ruling that there were no legal or constitutional grounds for contending that the term “foreign agent” had negative connotations from the Soviet era and that, therefore, its use was “not intended to persecute or discredit” NGOs. The Constitutional Court also found that the “foreign agent” designation was in line with the public interest and the interest of state sovereignty.

On May 23, 2014 parliament amended the “foreign agents” law, this time authorizing the Ministry of Justice to register independent groups as “foreign agents” without their consent, if the ministry regards the organizations as engaged in “political activity” and if the organization is receiving foreign funding. On June 4, 2014 the amendments were signed into law.

On June 5, the Ministry of Justice promptly registered five groups as “foreign agents,” and since then has registered a total of 16, including prominent civil society groups that vigorously protested this action.

I. By January 18, the registry of “foreign agents” maintained by the Ministry of Justice comprised the following groups:

  1. Association of NGOs in Defense of Voters’ Rights “Golos” (Moscow) - June 5, 2014
  2. Regional Public Association in Defense of Democratic Rights and Freedoms “Golos” (Moscow) - June 5, 2014
  3. Center for Social Policy and Gender Studies (Saratov) - June 5, 2014
  4. Women of Don (Rostov region) - June 5, 2014
  5. Kostroma Center for Support of Public Initiatives (Kostroma) - June 5, 2014
  6. Interregional Human Rights Association “Agora” (Kazan) – July 21, 2014
  7. Regional public organization “Ecozaschita! –Womens’ Council” (Kaliningrad) – July  21, 2014
  8. Public Verdict Foundation (Moscow) – July 21, 2014
  9. Human Rights Center “Memorial” (Moscow) – July 21, 2014
  10. Lawyers for Constitutional Rights and Freedoms / JURIX (Moscow) – July 21, 2014
  11. Soldiers’ Mothers (Saint Petersburg) – August 29, 2014
  12. Freedom of Information Foundation / Institute for Information Freedom Development – August 29, 2014
  13. PIR Center – September 3, 2014
  14. Association “Partnership for Development” (Saratov) – October 2, 2014
  15. “News Agency MEMO.RU” (Moscow) – November 20, 2014
  16. Regional Press Institute (St. Petersburg) – November 20, 2014
  17. Moscow School of Civic Education - December 9, 2014
  18. Rakurs, Arkhangelsk regional non-governmental LGBT organization - December 15, 2014
  19. All-Russian movement "For Human Rights" - December 22, 2014
  20. Human Rights Center (Kaliningrad) - December 25, 2014
  21. Krasnodar Regional Social Organization of University Alumni - December 25, 2014
  22. Regional social organization "Public Commission for Academic Sakharov's Heritage Preservation" - December 25, 2014
  23. Resource Human Rights Center (St. Petersburg) - December 30, 2014
  24. Regional Public Organization "Man and the Law" (Republic of Mari El) - December 30, 2014
  25. Center for Social Development "Vozrozhdeniye" (Pskov) - December 30, 2014
  26. Public Human Rights Organization "Civil Control" (St. Petersburg) - December 30, 2014
  27. The League of Women Voters (St. Petersburg) - December 30, 2014
  28. Free Press Support Foundation - December 30, 2014
  29. Interregional Non-Governmental Organization "The Committee Against Torture" - January 16, 2015
  30. Educational Center "Memorial" (Sverdlov region) - January 16, 2015

And the two NGOs which registered voluntarily:

  1. Non-commercial Partnership “Supporting Competition in the CIS Countries” - June 27, 2013 
  2. "The Union of Young Political Scientists",  Karachay–Cherkess Republican Youth Social Organization - December 15, 2014

II. Civil law suits against NGOs by the prosecutors

The Russian Civil Procedure Code gives the prosecutor’s office powers to file a civil law suit “in defence of rights, freedoms and legitimate interests of citizens, general public or interests of the Russian Federation, its subjects and municipal entities.” The prosecutor’s office filed and won civil suits against the following six groups, arguing that their failure to register as “foreign agents” harmed the public interest. Following on relevant court rulings, the NGOs were required to register as “foreign agents” within two weeks. At this writing, three have been forcibly registered as foreign agents by the Ministry of Justice (see above), and other two closed down.

  •         Anti-Discrimination Center “Memorial” (St. Petersburg) – NGO lost the suit and shut down
  •         Coming Out (St. Petersburg) – NGO lost the suit and shut down
  •         Women of Don (Rostov region) – NGO lost the suit and was registered as a “foreign agent”
  •         Center for Social Policy and Gender Studies (Saratov) – NGO lost the suit was registered as a “foreign agent”
  •         Youth Humanistic Movement (Murmansk) – NGO lost the suit and is appealing the ruling
  •         Association “Partnership for Development” (Saratov) – NGO lost the suit and was registered as a “foreign agent”

III. Administrative Court Cases – at least 12 NGOs

Groups that a court has found responsible for failing to register as a “foreign agent” may be fined up to 500,000 rubles (over US$16,000), and their leaders personally – up to 300,000 rubles (approximately $10,000). They are:

  •         Association of NGOs in Defense of Voters’ Rights “Golos” (Moscow) –NGO  lost the suit
  •         Kostroma Center for Support of Public Initiatives (Kostroma) –NGO  lost the suit
  •         Anti-Discrimination Center “Memorial” (St. Petersburg) – NGO won two administrative cases,  but later lost a similar civil suit to the prosecutor’s office and chose to shut down
  •         Coming Out (St. Petersburg) – NGO won the administrative case but later lost a similar civil suit to the prosecutor’s office
  •         Side by Side LGBT Film Festival (St. Petersburg) –NGO  won the suit
  •         Regional Public Association in Defense of Democratic Rights and Freedoms “Golos” (Moscow) -  NGO lost the suit
  •         Center for Civic Analysis and Independent Research / GRANI (Perm) – NGO won the suit
  •         Perm Civic Chamber (Perm)- NGO won the suit
  •         Perm Regional Human Rights Center (Perm) –NGO  won the suit
  •         Women of Don (Rostov region) – NGO lost the suit
  •         Ecozachita! – Zhensovet (Kaliningrad) – NGO  lost the suit
  •         Association “Partnership for Development” – NGO  lost the suit

IV. The leaders of the following 6 NGOs faced administrative charges personally:

  •         Anti-Discrimination Center “Memorial” (St. Petersburg) – NGO won the suit but the organization chose two shut down when it lost a “foreign agent” civil suit to the prosecutor’s office
  •         Side by Side LGBT Film Festival (St. Petersburg) – NGO won the suit
  •         Coming Out (St. Petersburg) – NGO won the suit
  •         Association “Partnership for Development”- NGO lost the suit
  •         Kostroma Center for Support of Public Initiatives (Kostroma) – NGO lost the suit
  •         Association of NGOs in Defense of Voters’ Rights “Golos” (Moscow) – NGO won the suit

V. Official Notices of Violations – at least 20 NGOs

The groups below received official orders to “eliminate violations,” i.e. direct orders by the prosecutor’s office to register as “foreign agents” within one month of their respective dates of notice. The prosecutor’s office or the Ministry of Justice took those groups to court for failure to register. Also, once the Ministry of Justice received the authority to register NGOs as “foreign agents,” it proceeded with registering 14 of the groups below unilaterally and without their consent (see Section 1 in this document).

  •         Center for Civic Analysis and Independent Research / GRANI (Perm)
  •         Baikal Environmental Wave (Irkutsk)
  •         Center for Social Policy and Gender Studies (Saratov)
  •         Information and Human Rights Center (Yekaterinburg)
  •         Regional Public Organization in Defense of Democratic Rights and Freedoms “Golos” (Moscow)
  •         Association of NGOs in Defense of Voters’ Rights “Golos” (Moscow)
  •         Human Rights Center “Memorial” (Moscow)
  •         Women of Don (Rostov region)
  •         Center for Support of Democratic Youth Initiatives / Youth “Memorial” (Perm)
  •         Interregional Human Rights Association “AGORA” (Kazan)
  •         “Panorama” Center (Moscow)
  •         “Lawyers for Constitutional Rights and Freedoms” / JURIX (Moscow)
  •         “Public Verdict” Foundation (Moscow)
  •         Independent Council of Legal Expertise / NEPS (Moscow)
  •         Moscow School of Political Studies (Moscow)
  •         Yaroslavl Regional Hunters’ and Fishermen Society (Yaroslavl)
  •         Perm Civic Chamber (Perm)
  •         Perm Regional Human Rights Center (Perm)
  •         Foundation for Social and Legal Assistance “Sphere” (Saint Petersburg)
  •         “Freedom of Information” Foundation (St. Petersburg)

VI. Warnings Not to Violate the Law - 54 NGOs

The groups below were warned of a need to register as “foreign agents” if they plan to carry out “political activities” or receive foreign funding in the future.

  •         Kabardino-Balkaria Human Rights Center – regional branch of the “For Human Rights” All-Russian movement (Nalchik)
  •         Kostroma Soldiers’ Mothers Committee (Kostroma)
  •         Legal Basis (Yekaterinburg)
  •         Democratic Center (Voronezh)
  •         Volgograd Center for NGO Support (Volgograd)
  •         Interregional Committee against Torture (Nizhniy Novgorod)
  •         “Man and Law” (Yoshkar-Ola)
  •         Institute of Press Development – Siberia (Novosibirsk)
  •         “Assistance to Cystic Fibrosis Patients” (Istra, Moscow Region)
  •         Amur Social-Ecologic Union (Blagoveshchensk)
  •         Amur Environmental Club “Ulukitkan” (Blagoveshchensk)
  •         “Phoenix” Foundation (Vladivostok)
  •         Ryazan “Memorial” Society (Ryazan)
  •         Movement “For Fair Elections” (Kurgan)
  •         “Golos – Siberia” Foundation (Novosibirsk)
  •         “Golos – Urals” Foundation (Chelyabinsk)
  •         “Golos – Volga region” Foundation (Samara)
  •         “Citizens’ Watch” (St. Petersburg)
  •         Center for NGO Development (St. Petersburg)
  •         Urals Democratic Foundation (Chelyabinsk)
  •         Urals Human Rights Group (Chelyabinsk)
  •         Center “Transparency International – R” (Moscow)
  •         Center for Independent Sociological Research (St. Petersburg)
  •         Center for Independent Social Research and Education (Irkutsk)
  •         Komi Human Rights Commission “Memorial” (Syktyvkar)
  •         Kirov Regional Hunters’ and Fishermen Society (Kirov)
  •         Muraviovka Park of Sustainable Land Use (Amur Region)
  •         “Nature and Youth” (Murmansk)
  •         Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights (Moscow)
  •         Journalism Advancement and Support Center (Moscow)
  •         Levada Center (Moscow)
  •         Foundation for Assistance to Public Opinion Research (Moscow)
  •         Regional Public Foundation “INDEM” (Moscow)
  •         “International Standard” Foundation (Ufa)
  •         Center for Social and Educational Initiatives (Izhevsk)
  •         Center for Interethnic Cooperation (Moscow)
  •         Regional Press Institute (St. Petersburg)
  •         MASHR (Ingushetia)
  •         Saami’s Public Association of the Murmansk Region / OOSMO
  •         Phoenix PLUS (Orel)
  •         Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus (Maykop)
  •         Foundation for Freedom of Information (St. Petersburg)
  •         Maximum (Murmansk)
  •         For the Nature (Chelyabinsk)
  •         Green Home (Khabarovsk)·
  •        Siberian Environmental Center (Novosibirsk)
  •         SPOK (Petrozavodsk)
  •         Kola Environmental Center (Murmansk)
  •         Apatity Environmental Center (Murmansk region)
  •         Kola Center for Wild Nature Defense (Murmansk)
  •         School of Soul Ecology “Tengri” (Gorno-Altaisk)
  •         Protected Natural Areas Association of the Altay Republic (Gorno-Altaisk)
  •       Center for Environmental Awareness-raising of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) “Eyge”
  •       (Yakutsk) Youth Foundation “Renaissance of the Siberian Land” (Irkutsk)