Crushing Russian NGOs: legal hack-work

by Olga Abramenko

Justice of peace of Rostov region made a ruling on July 8, 2014, which obliged NGO “Union of Women of Don” to pay Rb300,000 in penalty payments because organization failed to get voluntarily listed in a special register of “foreign agents” of the Ministry of justice.

This would be considered as yet another news of repressions against NGOs in Russia, something that has become routine, if not for one feature: some while ago, in June 2014, Ministry of justice started to widely use its right to arbitrarily list undesirable organizations as “foreign agents” – it can list NGOs as “foreign agents” on its own account and it already introduced “Women of Don” there. Why does this happen? According to the Ministry of justice, “Women of Don” were involved in political activities (ministry considers their report on the situation with human rights in prisons, as well as seminars and public discussions that they organized to be “political activities”) and it was exactly on these grounds that “Women of Don” were listed in the register. Already after the Ministry of justice put “Women of Don” on this list the latter were also subjected to administrative prosecution and fined, already after they were forcefully listed. The court ruled that “Women of Don” should pay Rb300,000, although Constitutional court of Russian Federation on April 8, 2014 had ruled that this was a very high minimal fine and the judges could use a lower fine.

Now “Women of Don” are forced to defend their interests in three different courts at once – they appealed the fine, the fact that they were listed in the “foreign agents” register and the ruling of Rostov regional court which declared them “foreign agent”.

Russian Ministry of justice plays a very strange role in legal practice concerning implementation of the law on “foreign agents”. If one looks carefully at the list of five NGOs, which were forcefully put on the list of “foreign agents” by the ministry so far, one can see an NGO, which is long defunct and had not received any financing for a long time (Voters’ rights association “Golos”); an NGO, which had never received foreign financing (and this had been confirmed by the Constitutional court) – Public association in defense of democratic rights and freedoms “Golos”; Kostroma Center for support of social initiatives, which had earlier announced ceasing its activities; Saratov-based Center for social policies and gender studies, which had been earlier declared a “foreign agent”, but then acquitted by Constitutional court’s ruling; and most recently “Women of Don”, which by the time of being listed as a “foreign agent” still awaited ruling of the court of second instance. And now “Women of Don” also get a fine!

From the very beginning the Ministry of justice participated in a campaign launched against Russian NGOs: ministry’s representatives were part of all the groups that checked various NGOs, for example, those checking three different NGOs “Memorial” in Moscow. However, at the beginning of this campaign minister of justice Kovalyov himself expressed his doubts as to whether the register of “foreign agents” can be indeed filled. Back in January 2013, when speaking before the State Duma, he stated that the new law was in contradiction to the very spirit of Russian legislation on NGOs and said that the Ministry of justice was not able to implement it. He also warned about appeals to Constitutional court that were expected. However, just half a year later the Ministry of justice started implementing the law in a very bold fashion, similar to that one of the procurator’s office, working in a very unprofessional, rude and hack-work fashion.

There were some lapses of reason registered in the activities of the Ministry of justice, though, which took place even recently. Thus, when Murmansk procurator’s office declared Youth humanistic movement a “foreign agent” after some “experts” provided a report on the request of the Center for fighting against extremism, which featured a conclusion that the slogan “Freedom!!!” was an extremist one (to be exact, the expert considered three exclamation marks to be a sign of extremism), the Ministry of justice responded negatively on both the claims that this organization could be declared a “foreign agent” or an extremist organization. But such cases may be considered as a legacy of inertia to be found in regional bodies of the Ministry of justice, where public officers demonstrate professionalism and care for their reputation. But it is hardly likely that such a liberal approach will last for long – the process of smashing civil society in Russia, which currently gathers momentum following the adoption and implementation of the new law, will lead to only one possible outcome – liquidation of independent Russian NGOs.

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