One year ago Russia adopted a "foreign agents law" that imposes restrictions on civil society organizations that take foreign funding. Since then more than a thousand independent non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been subjected to unannounced inspections by Russian authorities. Some have faced heavy fines and in some instances have been forced to shut their doors. Even Amnesty International's Moscow office was raided after the law was passed.
For some, the "inspections" were followed by persecution through administrative proceedings and the courts. More of this is expected.
The law has had a chilling effect on prominent NGOs working on civil, political, social and economic rights, as well as on environmental issues. Imagine being part of the LGBTI community and not having an organization to advocate on your behalf or provide you related information and services. Imagine wanting to join a group that reflects your beliefs, but not finding any. Imagine needing social assistance, but having nowhere to turn to. This is the impact that Russia's "foreign agents law" has had on Russian citizens. Repealing the law will help the many Russians who need the services and support that these organizations provide.
The law requires any NGO receiving foreign funding and engaging in what it defines vaguely as "political activity" to register as an "organization performing the functions of a foreign agent." Not only does the law expose targeted organizations to increased state scrutiny, the term "foreign agent" carries a negative connotation and can contribute to negative impressions about the NGOs.
This law is another example of the continued crackdown on the right to freedom of expression, assembly and association that has spiked since Vladimir Putin re-took Russia's presidency.
Last month, Russian courts sent Mikhail Kosenko to forcible psychiatric treatment for his participation in a protest in Moscow's Bolotnaya Square. Though the prosecutor claimed that Kosenko was engaged in violence during the march, there is video evidence to the contrary. Sending a peaceful protestor to psychiatric treatment is an appalling indication that President Putin's administration will go to any lengths to stifle dissent. Amnesty International is calling for Kosenko's immediate and unconditional release and is featuring him, and other peaceful protestors, in its annual Write for Rights letter-writing marathon where millions of people around the globe act together for human rights.
As the Sochi Winter Olympic Games approach, the world is becoming increasingly aware of the deteriorating human rights situation in Russia. The "foreign agents law" was designed, and is being implemented to malign and discredit those NGOs that promote human rights, monitor elections and provide other critical services. The law's impact is to cut critical funding streams to such organizations thereby curtailing their ability to continue operations.
Once such NGO is Golos, whose name means "Voice" in Russian. The group served as an independent watchdog of Russian elections. Utilizing the "foreign agents law", Russian authorities imposed heavy fines on Golos and suspended their activities for several months. After trying in vain to challenge the law and the actions taken against them, Golos decided to shut its doors and disband.
This week the "Alliance of Women of the Don," an organization that advises Russians on family, labor, housing and pension issues, is facing a court hearing for refusing to register as a "foreign agent." Lev Ponomaryov, the head of another organization "For Human Rights," told Amnesty International: "If we have to close down, thousands of people across Russia will suffer. If other NGOs are forced to close down -- tens of thousands will suffer. Civil society will be doomed."
Amnesty International continues to document the many instances of human rights violations in Russia. Without organizations to provide critical services and peaceful advocacy, these violations will only increase and people will continue to suffer. The repressive "foreign agents law" should be immediately repealed.
Follow Samir Goswami on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Samir__Goswami