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Reacting to the latest decisions of the Russian authorities concerning non-governmental organisations, the Steering Committee of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum again strongly urges the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation and other relevant authorities to stop crackdown on NGOs, repeal or substantially revise the law No. 121-FZ (the so called “foreign agents” law) by removing the derogatory label of “foreign agent“, and restart dialogue with independent Russian civil society organisations. Moreover, the Steering Committee expresses its indignation and extreme concern about the instances of harassment of civic organisations and activists as retaliation or punishment for their activities, their position or their distribution of information on the conflict in Ukraine which is different from the official point of view.

On 28 August, 2014 the official list of NGOs registered as “foreign agents” (background story see below) was expanded by inclusion of two further prominent NGOs from St. Petersburg and members of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum: the St. Petersburg Regional Public Human Rights Organisation “Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg” and the Institute for Freedom of Information Development Foundation. By doing that, the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation used its power to include NGOs in this list, which was given to it by the amendments to the Federal Law No. 121-FZ, adopted on 4 June, 2014.

This decision of the Ministry of Justice, along with continued persecution of other NGOs in courts as well as the crackdown on civic activists is another example of the broad spectrum of abhorrent practices of politically motivated and selective application of laws in the country. This approach follows the experiences of other organisations, which received the derogatory label of “foreign agent” earlier this year .

We pay particular attention to the fact that “Soldiers’ Mothers’ of St. Petersburg” was added to the list of “foreign agents” by the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation on 28 August immediately after Ella Polyakova, the organisation’s director and a member of the Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights, made it public on 26 August that she had received information stating that about a hundred Russian military personnel apparently injured in the South-East of Ukraine had arrived in St. Petersburg for medical treatment.

Since the law on “foreign agents” came into force in November 2012, “Soldiers’ Mothers’ of St. Petersburg” had already experienced several inspections by the authorities and other forms of pressure. In February 2013, two separate inspections by the City Department of the Ministry of Justice and by the Police Anti-Extremism Centre took place. On 10 December, 2013, a member of the organisation, Olga Pavlova, was attacked and beaten at a meeting of the local military administration agency. The police refused to investigate the attack. On 18 April, 2014, Ella Polyakova was questioned by the Ministry of the Interior, and later in May the prosecutor’s office requested access to the NGO’s documents from the previous two years. The prosecutor’s office eventually decided that the NGO had carried out “political activities” through its publication of a 2013 report on human rights violations. “Soldiers’ Mothers of Saint-Petersburg” appealed the fact of inspection in court and notified the prosecutor’s office that it had ceased receiving foreign funding. Nevertheless, it didn’t help, and on 28 August the organisation was included by the Ministry of Justice in the list of “foreign agents”. Like their colleagues from other NGOs earlier, the organisation plans to appeal the decision by the Ministry of Justice.

Pressure on the organisation has intensified almost immediately after the decision of the Ministry of Justice. On 5 September, unknown persons who introduced themselves as journalists of the 5th TV Channel, tried to break into the apartment of Elena Popova, a former staff member of “Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg”. On the same day windows of the car of Olga Alexeeva, the NGO’s Executive Director, were broken. And in the same evening a crew of the infamous NTV television company invaded the office of the organisation, accusing its personnel of “destruction of the Russian army” and “involvement in political activities” and making recording without consent of the NGO. Based on this visit, a negative programme about the organisation was broadcasted on the NTV Channel on 7 September. All these acts of harassment as well as a decision of the Ministry of Justice which had preceded them and in fact made them possible cannot be interpreted other than retaliation for the distribution by “Soldiers’ Mothers of Saint-Petersburg” of information about events in Ukraine contradicting the official point of view, and an attempt to silence the NGO.The Institute for Freedom of Information Development Foundation (IFIDF) has also faced already two intrusive inspections from the prosecutor’s office – in March 2013 and January 2014. On 27 January, 2014, the prosecutor’s office issued an official notice of violation of the law, obliging the institute to register as a “foreign agent”. The NGO appealed this prosecutor’s notice arguing that its activities are not “political” and are not aimed at changing state policy.

On 28 August, 2014, the Ministry of Justice registered the NGO as a “foreign agent” by its own decision, despite the fact that the court session on the appeal by the institute against the prosecutor’s decision did not take place yet. It was scheduled at the Moscow District Court of St. Petersburg for 5 September, 2014. After the decision of the Ministry of Justice the court expectedly turned down the appeal, while the prosecutor informed the judge that she learnt about the decision of inclusion of the NGO on the list of “foreign agents” on the webpage of the Ministry of Justice. The IFIDF is going to appeal the court decision. Moreover, a related case of pressure on the organisation and a striking example of violation of fundamental freedoms has been a recent deportation from Russia of Jennifer Gaspar, a US citizen and wife of the Chairman of the Board of the IFIDF, lawyer Ivan Pavlov, upon the cancellation of her residence permit by the Federal Migration Service on 5 August, 2014.

The Steering Committee of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum urges the intergovernmental organisations, the international community and in particular the European Union authorities to pay close attention to violations of fundamental freedoms and the rule of law in the Russian Federation and continued pressure on independent NGOs, and to cooperate more closely with and support Russian civil society, which is an irreplaceable partner for all parties in this time of severe crisis in EU-Russia relations.

12 September, 2014

Contact:

Anna Sevortian, Executive Director, Secretariat of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, Berlin, Germany
tel. + 49 30 44 66 80 13, e-mail:
anna.anna.sevortian@eu-russia-csf.org 

Stefan Melle, Steering Committee of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, German-Russian Exchange, Berlin, tel.: + 49 175 413 72 00, e-mail: stefan.melle@austausch.org