(March 18, 2016 | Washington, D.C.) A Moscow district court yesterday fined the Public Verdict Foundation human rights organization 400,000 rubles for refusing a Russian government demand that its publications acknowledge it is a “foreign agent.” Public Verdict will appeal the decision. Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights urges the government to dismiss the charges behind the fine and calls upon Russia’s legislative body to repeal the law enabling it.
The “foreign agents” law, adopted in 2012, requires nonprofit organizations that receive foreign funding and engage in “political activity” to register as foreign agents—a label synonymous in Russia with “spy” or “traitor.” More than 120 non-governmental organizations have been added to the list; more than 20 of them have been forced to shut down as a result of burdens associated with being labeled foreign agents, including additional fines, audits, reporting and social stigmatization. To date the Russian government has exploited the vagueness of the law to target a wide variety of groups, but the legislature is currently considering amendments to the law that would codify a far-reaching definition of “political activity,” making nearly any civil society organization in Russia a potential target.
“The foreign agent label is a lie; organizations like Public Verdict are made up of Russians who work transparently on behalf of their fellow citizens to advocate for justice and human rights,” said Kerry Kennedy, president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. “The fine Public Verdict received demonstrates the law’s true purpose: helping Russian officials silence NGOs with a shameful label and overwhelming constraints on their ability to freely operate. Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights calls upon Russian representatives to end this harassment of civil society and repeal the “foreign agents” law entirely.”
The Russian government registered the Public Verdict Foundation, an NGO dedicated to providing legal services to victims of police abuse and promoting police reform, as a foreign agent in July 2014. Public Verdict has fought the designation in court ever since, and provided legal assistance to 13 other NGOs contesting the label this year alone. One of four website articles identified as noncompliant with the “foreign agents” law, and for which the organization was fined, was Public Verdict’s announcement that its director, Natalia Taubina, received the 2015 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.
“Public Verdict’s continued dedication to its work and refusal to misrepresent itself to the public is just one example of the many Russian civil society organizations that remain resilient in the face of governmental oppression,” said David McKean, program officer at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. “But as this court action demonstrates, civil society in Russia is operating in an increasingly hostile climate. Punitive statutes like the “foreign agents” law clearly violate the rights to freedoms of association and expression guaranteed by both Russia’s constitution and its international treaty obligations. The Russian State Duma should repeal the “foreign agents” law immediately.”