Ecodefense brings suit against Justice Ministry for unlawful forcible inclusion on ‘foreign agent’ list

russian ministry of justice The Russian Ministry of Justice. (Source: minjust.ru)

ST. PETERSBURG – The Russian ecological group Ecodefense on Friday filed a petition in Zamoskvoretsky District Court in Moscow asking that it declare illegal the decision by the Ministry of Justice to include the organization on the so-called “foreign agent” roster. Ecodefense insists its activities are ecological, not political, and that the ministry’s decision violates its rights and freedoms.

Ecodefense said in its Friday press release that it also motioned the court to have the effect of the ministry’s decision suspended until the complaint has been reviewed by the court.

The complaint also argues, aside from the principal points, that the ministry has obstructed Ecodefense’s right to judicial remedy.

“We do not accept the ‘foreign agent’ label and we ask that the court restore the rule of law,” Ecodefense co-chairman Vladimir Slivyak was quoted in the organization’s statement. “Instead of working to keep Russians safe from new nuclear catastrophes, the government is persecuting environmentalists who call out the dangers of nuclear energy. A more cynical state of affairs could hardly be fathomed.”

On Monday, July 21, the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation updated its notorious “foreign agent” list, a roster of non-governmental organizations the state claims are involved in “political activities” and that receive funding from abroad.

The updated roster lists Ecodefense and four prominent Russian human rights advocacies – Memorial, Public Verdict, Agora, and Lawyers for Constitutional Rights and Freedoms.

“Contrary to the ministry’s allegations, Ecodefense has never engaged in political activities, nor has it ever made decisions in the interests of any foreign persons or entities. The campaign against the construction of the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant in Kaliningrad Region, which was the basis for the ministry’s decision to declare Ecodefense a ‘foreign agent,’ is ecological, not political activity,” Ecodefense’s Friday press release said.

Since the adoption of the infamous “foreign agent” law in November 2012, which prescribes NGOs that conduct loosely defined “political activities” and operate on funding received from Western donors – and which Russian NGOs, in defiance of the demeaning moniker, universally boycotted – state authorities have staged a hounding campaign across the country using prosecutorial raids and largely complacent courts in an attempt to secure “foreign agent” findings against hundreds of non-governmental organizations working in human and civil rights, educational, charitable, gender studies and equality, and many other fields.

Last month, however, the Justice Ministry was granted authority to forcibly include NGOs on its “foreign agent” roster without the organizations’ consent or court rulings, and has now twice used its new mandate to do so.

Ecodefense is currently the only environmental organization to have been forcibly registered as a “foreign agent” NGO.

In its petition to the court – a copy of which Bellona has seen – Ecodefense asks the court to “declare illegal inaction, action, and decision by a government authority” and states that the ministry’s decision to add the organization on its “foreign agent” roster “has not been forwarded to us, its content, grounds for why it was made, and the official responsible for making it, are unknown to us.”

The petition also argues the ministry’s failure to inform the organization of its decision “impedes the exercise of [Ecodefense’s] right to judicial relief, because without knowing with certainty the grounds for including the organization on the roster, we cannot argue an appeal on the [decision’s] merits in court.”

Ecodefense further submits that the ministry’s regional branch in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, which last month inspected Ecodefense and summed up its assertions in an inspection report, “failed to produce any argument to prove that the organization participates in political activity” as the latter is defined in the law.

Ecodefense’s work does not include carrying out political actions, nor participation in any political processes, nor is it aimed to help any political organizations, the complaint states.

It also refers to the language of the “foreign agent” law, which lists, among other activities that do not qualify as “political,” activities in the spheres of public health and protection of plant and animal life.

Ecodefense states it aims its efforts at defending the lawful ecological rights of Russian citizens, including in aid of implementation of Article 42 of the Russian Constitution, which guarantees everyone the right to favorable environment and reliable information about its state. “In light of the severe ecological consequences of the nuclear disasters in Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011, discussing the risks of new nuclear power plants in Russia is environmental, not political activity,” the petition says.

Furthermore, the complaint adds, Ecodefense by law is entitled three months to appeal the assertions of the Justice Ministry’s Kaliningrad branch in a higher authority – either the federal ministry or in court. This period has not yet expired.

Justice ministry officials in Kaliningrad had claimed in their inspection report that Ecodefense “has been conducting political activity, including in the interests of foreign [funding] sources” in its campaign against the construction of the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant – a project Ecodefense had actively protested against since 2007 and succeeded in bringing to a halt in mid-2013.

Last Monday’s “foreign agent” list update was also posted ahead of the first court hearing, scheduled for August 25, to consider a claim brought by the ministry that Ecodefense failed to voluntarily register as a “foreign agent” – an administrative violation charge carrying a fine of up to 500,000 roubles against the organization and up to 300,000 roubles against its director.

Likewise, at least three of the forcibly registered as “foreign agents” human rights groups were still moving through the court appeals process when they were slammed with the ministry’s decision.

“That a state authority posted Ecodefense’s name under the derogatory heading ‘foreign agent’ creates great impediments to the organization’s effective work in the public field,” the organization’s Friday press release said.

“Ecodefense insists, therefore, that forcing the “foreign agent” status on the organization will inevitably mean obstruction of its activities and violation of its rights and freedoms.”

Maria Kaminskaya