Russia authorities have suspended the country’s leading independent election monitor for six months after it refused to register as a “foreign agent”.
The government’s latest move against Golos, which reported widespread electoral fraud in the 2011 polls, is the first suspension of a nongovernmental organization since the Duma passed a controversial law requiring NGOs engaged in allegedly political activity funded from abroad to register as “foreign agents”.
“In mid-June,” The Moscow Times reports, “the Presnensky District Court upheld a May ruling ordering Golos to pay 300,000 rubles ($9,500) for refusing to register with the Justice Ministry under the law. The group argued that it was not required to do so because it had not received any foreign funding since the law came into effect.”
Golos deputy director Grigory Melkonyats (right) said that the Norwegian Helsinki Committee sent the group 7,000 euros by mistake and that the funds had been moved to the bank’s transit account as soon as the error was noticed, a statement confirmed by the group’s lawyer, who presented supporting documentation
“This cannot be called anything but a continuation of the persecution of Golos,” Grigory Melkonyants, the organization’s deputy head, told Reuters:
Its head, Liliya Shibanova, was detained for hours at an airport a day before the December 2011 parliamentary election, in which widespread allegations of fraud fuelled the biggest protests of Putin’s 13-year rule.
Last October, Russia ejected the U.S. Agency for International Development, which had provided most of the group’s funding, accusing USAID of seeking to influence elections….Putin, who denies clamping down on critics, has defended the “foreign agent” law, saying Russians
Rights groups and Western governments have criticized the law and a wave of inspections carried out by prosecutors and tax authorities in recent months, which has led to fines and court cases against several NGOs and now to the suspension of Golos.
Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday that a review of warnings and other documents prosecutors have issued to NGOs under the law “provide disturbing insight into Russian government efforts to suppress independent organizations.”
“The authorities have defined political activity so broadly as to ensure government control over just about any organized activity relating to public life,” the New York-based group’s regional director, Hugh Williamson, said in a statement.
In a further indication of the Kremlin’s crackdown on civil society, Lev Ponomaryov (above), the head of the NGO For Human Rights, was badly beaten as the group was evicted from its Moscow premises last weekend.
Ponomaryov, 72, told RFE/RL that he sustained multiple bruises and scratches after being dragged across the floor and kicked by a group of unidentified men.
“During the night, I was taken to an emergency room by ambulance,” Ponomaryov said. “I have a medical report showing that I had numerous bruises: three or four on my head, one on my eye, as you can still see, a bump on my eyebrow, scratches on my neck, and another bump on the back of my head, a bruise on my chest. They beat us in the kidneys, with precision.”
The U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul tweeted that “the USA is concerned about reports of the forcible seizure of the office of the NGO For Human Rights,” adding that this was “another case of intimidating civil society”.
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint program of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), has called on rights advocates to write to Russian authorities to protest the eviction (details here).
FIDH is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.