Experts warn that failure to repeal controversial Russian law will increase Moscow’s ‘self isolation’

| June 5, 2014 | 0 Comments
By Martin Banks
A leading Russian human rights activist has called on the European Union to “drastically” increase financial aid to civil society in the country.
The demand, by Yuri Dzhibladze, comes with the launch of a major new report outlining the impact of Russia’s crackdown on the country’s non-governmental organizations.
The report, Judicial Dimension of the Crackdown, was drafted by the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Civic Solidarity Platform (CSP) on the so-called foreign agents law introduced by Russian President Vladimir Putin in November 2012.
It covers a ten-month period last year when court hearings were brought against scores of Russian NGOs, requiring them to register as foreign agents.
The hearings, 30 of which were closely monitored by teams of independent observers from IPHR and CSP, resulted in 25 NGOs being warned of “violations”, scores of inspections and 75 NGOs cautioned they would be required to register as foreign agents if they continued their “political activities.”
The report, which focused on proceedings against seven NGOs, goes on to say that the restrictions imposed by the law had not been substantiated in “any of the cases” it monitored by observers, who included lawyers and international experts.
The 24-page report concludes that the Foreign Agent´s Act imposes “excessive and unnecessary” requirements on NGOs, with “overly harsh” penalties for non-compliance.So far, three NGOs in Russia, facing the prospect of fines up to €10,000 and two years’ imprisonment for their leaders, have been forced to close.

But, much to the chagrin of the Russian government, no NGOs have registered as “foreign agents” which, under Russian law, is tantamount to an admission of espionage.
While it does not question the impartiality of the tribunals, the report says, “The Act is couched in terms that are vague and liable to an overly broad interpretation. The result, as shown in the report, is inconsistent application of the law by the Russian courts.”
Instead of fulfilling their function of “providing scrutiny to guarantee the unhindered exercise” of the right to freedom of association, the courts had “chosen to “rubber stamp” the prosecutor’s charges.
In some cases the courts, it adds, had “failed to properly examine evidence” and were “in breach of the right to a fair hearing.
It also reveals “conflicting” judicial practices of Russian courts in applying the law with the same type of activities branded as “political” by some courts but not by others.
The document, copies of which have been sent to the EU. says it is “hard to see any reasonable and objective justification” for what it brands as “unwarranted interference” with the freedom of expression.
Speaking on Wednesday, Mr Dzhibladze, president of the Centre for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights, predicted that “many more” NGOs may also have to shut down unless the law is repealed.
“These organisations cover everything from environmental protection to election observation and, in the absence of an independent media and genuine political opposition, are the only outlet for those opposed to current Russian policy.”
He adds, “We are therefore asking the EU to put more pressure on the Russian government to repeal this repressive and draconian law. The EU should not just speak about war and peace but also continually raise concerns about fundamental rights and freedom in  Russia.”
The Moscow-based official also stressed the importance of “dramatically increasing” the amount the EU allocates to civil society in Russia. Currently, this amounts to €4m for Russian NGOs compared with €35m for the EU’s six Eastern Neighourhood Partnership countries.
“It is ten times higher for ENP countries and let’s remember that the population of Russia is 140m compared with 70m in the ENP states,” he said.
Maria Suchkova, a Moscow-based human rights lawyer, said, “We are  appealing for more international support for civil society groups in Russia and more protection for those threatened with further action.”
Against a backdrop of the unfolding crisis in Ukraine, she said that failure to act will “further increase” Russia’s current “self isolation.”
Both were in Brussels to meet officials from the European Commission, European External Action Service and member state representatives as part of an ongoing campaign to force Russia to repeal the controversial legislation.

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