ST. PETERSBURG—Four of Russia’s most authoritative human rights groups and the environmental organization Ecodefense were on Monday forcibly included on the Ministry of Justice’s “foreign agent” roster even though court proceedings to determine their status have either not yet concluded or even started, leaving some of the beleaguered NGOs next to no recourse to fight the labeling.
The Russian Ministry of Justice on Monday made five new additions to its roster of so-called “foreign agents,” including such prominent human rights advocacies as the venerable Memorial, Agora, and Public Verdict, as well as Lawyers for Constitutional Rights and Freedoms (JURIX), and the environmental organization Ecodefense.
A ministry press release (in Russian) said the decision to include the four human rights organizations on the “foreign agent” list was made on the strength of prosecutors’ findings; the decision regarding Ecodefense was based on the summary of an inspection the ministry itself had conducted in early June.
Ecodefense, one of the oldest environmental NGOs in Russia and a staunch anti-nuclear campaigner, last month became the first environmental organization to be targeted by the “foreign agent” law for successfully resisting the construction of the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.
Ecodefense’s co-chairman Vladimir Slivyak in a telephone conversation with Bellona early on Wednesday reiterated Ecodefense’s position saying the organization’s “activity is not political and is aimed at defending the ecological rights of Russian citizens.”
Ecodefense does not agree with the justice ministry’s position, Slivyak said, adding that the ministry may be trying together with the Russian State Nuclear Corporation Rosatom to neutralize one of the ecological organizations working in Russia.
In Ecodefense’s case, the ministry’s Monday statement also said administrative violation proceedings have been initiated against the organization based on a provision that carries fines of up to 500,000 roubles for failing to register as a “foreign agent.”
Ecodefense’s head Alexandra Korolyova in Kaliningrad confirmed to Bellona in an email correspondence Tuesday night that Ecodefense is planning to defend itself in court.
Alexander Cherkasov, head of Memorial told RIA Novosti (in Russian) that the NGO will “absolutely challenge [the ministry’s] decision in court.”
“We are convinced that these organizations – as all those included into this roster earlier against their will – act solely in the interest of Russia as they provide effective help in defending citizens’ rights against infringement by state officials,” a statement (in Russian) issued by Memorial on Tuesday said.
Led in its early years by academician Andrei Sakharov, Memorial is a highly esteemed Russian civil rights organization, created in 1987 with a focus on researching and educating the public about Soviet political repressions. It later broadened its activities to include human rights advocacy.
“[These organizations’] forcible inclusion on the ‘foreign agent’ roster is an attempt to impede this work. Instead of fighting violations of citizens’ rights, the state is waging a war against those who bring these violations to light. This practice (including the very use of the term ‘foreign agent’) was already tried during the Soviet time and it led to no good,” Memorial’s statement said.
Public Verdict on Wednesday filed a complaint in court over the ministry’s decision, the NGO told Bellona in an email.
The human rights association Agora will likewise contest the ministry’s decision, an ITAR-TASS report (in Russian) said citing Agora’s head Pavel Chikov. Agora’s information department head Dmitry Kolbasin wrote in an email to Bellona that the NGO will take legal action and didn’t rule out appealing in court.
Anita Soboleva from JURIX told Bellona by telephone on Wednesday that “this was a very unpleasant and premature fact” and that it left the organization “perplexed.”
Soboleva also said JURIX, which provides free legal assistance to citizens and organizations seeking to defend their constitutional rights, will appeal but will comply with the “foreign agent” law by informing those who come to it for help of the organization’s changed status.
Nikolai Rybakov, executive director of the Environmental Rights Center (ERC) Bellona in St. Petersburg, said the ministry’s actions “go against common sense and the true interests of the country.”
“Yesterday, in the Kremlin, while speaking at the Security Council meeting, President Vladimir Putin said it was ‘extremely important for our civil society to take an active position and react to infringements on human rights and freedoms, helping to prevent radicalism and extremism.’ But this is exactly what the organizations that were put on the ‘foreign agent’ roster are doing – defending human rights and freedoms in Russia, working to prevent radicalism,” Rybakov told Bellona.
“So it turns out that, on the face of it, the president is talking about the importance of civil society, but in practice, the best Russian NGOs are being persecuted by the authorities. And favorable treatment is afforded only to government-friendly organizations,” Rybakov said.
The Ministry of Justice responded to Bellona’s call on Wednesday by saying it needed a written request for comment. The ministry’s reply to the written request has not been received as of this writing.
Ministry gets free hand rounding up ‘foreign agents’
With the November 2012 “foreign agent” law, the state set its sights on non-governmental organizations that it said must report as “foreign agents” if they conduct loosely defined “political activities” and receive funding from abroad.
The law also forces such organizations to operate under an increased burden of state scrutiny and added restrictions, including obligatory use of an “acting as a foreign agent” label on the information published or distributed by such an NGO.
A universal refusal by civil society organizations to voluntarily register under what is seen as a demeaning moniker spurred in early 2013 an onslaught of prosecutorial raids across the country.
Until a month ago, forcibly putting an NGO on the “foreign agent” roster required that a prosecutors’ inspection first allege that an organization acts as a “foreign agent”; that claim then had to be supported in court.
However, in a climate that has been increasingly hostile to civil society in the past two years, the Justice Ministry has been granted significant leeway: New amendments signed into force by Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 4 gave the agency discretion to march non-governmental organizations into the “foreign agent” camp without relying either on their consent or on court decisions.
The amendments were last April proposed by State Duma legislator and former KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi. Lugovoi is wanted by the British authorities as the prime suspect in the notorious murder by polonium-210 poisoning of an exiled former KGB operative, Alexander Litvinenko, in London in 2006.
Caught in a ‘legal vice’
Yet, appeal proceedings on the prosecutors’ reports were still ongoing at least for three of the organizations as the ministry slapped them with a “foreign agent” branding.
The ministry’s move effectively blocks further legal action to fight the “foreign agent” labeling for those NGOs still in a legal limbo, even as the law allows organizations to go to court to appeal the ministry’s decision.
Thus, Public Verdict was in the process of appealing in Moscow City Court an earlier district court decision that sided with prosecutors’ “foreign agent” claim.
Public Verdict’s representative Furkat Tishayev told the Russian legal and court information agency RAPSI (in Russian) on Monday that the ministry was “violating the principle of legal certainty by including on the roster those NGOs that are currently at the stage of appealing the prosecutors’ citations.”
“We have the right to appeal this decision, but this is a dead-end situation […],” said Tishayev, who also said he had just learned of the decision from the ministry’s press release.
He explained that if Moscow City Court upholds the district court’s decision in an appeal hearing, then “it would be impossible to again review our inclusion on the foreign agent roster.”
“The subject of the appeal will be the same, but a decision on it will have been already issued. The Ministry of Justice has therefore denied us a means of legal defense,” Tishayev told RAPSI.
“Indeed, this presents a certain conundrum, which, in essence, means that any actions an organization undertakes are meaningless as the justice ministry, in one simple wave of the hand, put it on the [‘foreign agent’] roster,” said ERC Bellona’s lawyer Artyom Alexeyev.
According to Alexeyev, Public Verdict has been challenging prosecutors’ unlawful allegations of “political activities” since March last year. The June amendments were introduced, “apparently, in order to simplify state authorities’ work and finally grip NGOs in a legal vice,” Alexeyev said.
Despite the right to appeal the ministry’s actions, he added, all possible procedural barriers may be put in place to prevent Public Verdict from succeeding in its appeal. Alexeyev did not estimate the organizations’ odds of winning as very good.
As it filed its complaint over the ministry’s decision, Public Verdict also requested that court suspend its effect until all appeal proceedings have been concluded.
The Public Verdict Foundation, created in 2004, was, according to its website, established as a non-profit, non-partisan organization offering legal assistance to victims of human rights abuse at the hands of law enforcement officers in Russia.
In April and May, RAPSI’s story said, Public Verdict’s and Memorial’s complaints over the prosecutors’ “foreign agent” findings had been decided for the prosecution by the district court. JURIX was likewise unsuccessful in its complaint.
The Russian business RBC Daily reported (in Russian) that Memorial and JURIX were also still going through the appeal process when they were slammed by the ministry’s decision.
JURIX’s Soboleva told Bellona it was strange why “such a hurry was necessary” when court hearings were still under way. She also said JURIX is now considering what course of action to take with regard to the organization’s future activities, and will determine that when its case has been decided.
As for Ecodefense, it has yet to have its day in court.
Ecodefense’s prosecutorial inspection last year did not produce a “foreign agent” finding.
However, having completed its own inspection of Ecodefense in June, the Justice Ministry wrote in its inspection summary that the NGO’s opposition to the construction of the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant in Kaliningrad region constituted “political activity, including in the interests of foreign [funding] sources.”
Slivyak said Ecodefense first and foremost intends to battle the administrative violation charge in court, where a first hearing has been scheduled for August 25.
“There is this [administrative violations code] article and huge fines that we cannot pay anyway,” Slivyak said. “It provides for [no other penalty] but the enormous fines, so basically it means closing down.”
As for further actions, Slivyak said Ecodefense would be disputing the ministry’s decision to include it on the “foreign agent” roster, and may file a suit before contesting the administrative violation charge. But though the two litigations would be logically connected, challenging the ministry’s decision is legally a different task – and one where no case law yet exists to draw from any established practice.
“We’ll see how things go in court,” Slivyak said.
Ecodefense has previously stated it would never accept a “foreign agent” status.
“Agreeing to be labeled as a ‘foreign agent’ would mean compromising one’s moral standards and misleading the public and the Russian state. We are being forced to admit to a violation we have not committed,” Slivyak wrote in a comment in early July. “Being designated as a ‘foreign agent’ would harm the reputation we have worked for many years to build and would create a false impression that environmental work is undertaken in the interest of some foreign entities when in fact it is undertaken to defend the ecological rights of Russian citizens.”
Harsh criticism of the “foreign agent” law both in Russia and abroad has stressed repeatedly that the law is used as a legal instrument for discrediting, persecuting, and bringing pressure on any non-governmental organization regardless of what it does. Critics have pointed out the notion of “political activity” is itself defined broadly enough to encompass any kind of activity at all, should the authorities deem it necessary.
Even the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights in October 2012 concluded (in Russian) that the law is “completely excessive and legally meaningless.”
The Russian Constitutional Court, however, upheld the law in April this year.
On June 9, within days of the Justice Ministry receiving its expanded mandate, five NGOs were forcibly added on the “foreign agent” roster: the voter rights and election monitoring group association Golos, which was particularly vocal reporting violations throughout the widely contested 2011 State Duma election campaign, one of Golos’ regional chapters, the Kostroma Center for Support of Public Initiatives, the Center for Social Policy and Gender Studies in Saratov, and Women of Don in Novocherkassk.
Since the crackdown campaign began in 2012, a handful of NGOs were successful in fending off prosecutors’ demands to register as “foreign agents,” according to Human Rights Watch, which tracks closely the legal nightmare that hit dozens of NGOs across Russia. At least four of the groups caught in the authorities’ net initiated proceedings to close operations in order to avoid further repressive legal action, Human Rights Watch said.
A joint complaint by a number of leading human rights groups, Ecodefense among them, was filed last year with the European Court of Human Rights. Proceedings on the case are currently pending.
Liya Vandysheva contributed to this report.