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On January 20th the Russian State Duma unanimously, with two MPs abstaining, supported the first reading of a bill that introduces a registry of “undesirable foreign organisations” under the Ministry of Justice. Under the proposed legislation, an organisation will be considered “undesirable” if it fits into the vague definition of “an international organisation which poses a threat to the defence capacity and security of the state or to public order, or to public health.” Organisations can be added to the registry by a joint recommendation from the Prosecutor General and the Ministry of Internal Affairs. “Undesirable” organisations can face the following punishments: blocking banking accounts; restricting the dissemination of information, including via the Internet; or the closing their offices in Russia. First-time individuals breaking the law can face fines up to 100,000 rubles and repeat offenders could see fines from 300,000 to 500,000 rubles and two to eight years in prison.

Tanya Cooper, Russia researcher with the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch, explained to Digital Report the potential motives and threats to human rights defenders from the proposed legislation.

Why did the bill appear right now? Whom does it primarily target?

Any government has the right to protect the security of its citizens. But it is clear that this bill is a continuation in a series of laws restricting the freedom of association and other freedoms [passed in Russia over the last year — DR]. In addition, it emerged in the context of anti-Western hysteria that officials and national media endlessly promote. In contrast to the law on “foreign agents,” which is directed against Russian NGOs, the bill is not limited to NGOs, rather it appears to be aimed at regulating the activities of foreign and international organisations: commercial and non-commercial, governmental and non-governmental. The authors of the bill justify the desire to protect Russia from the influence of extremist and terrorist groups; however, as practice shows, the law will be applied more widely and is likely to affect the critics of the Kremlin’s policies.

Do you understand the principles upon which prosecutors will categorize an organisation as “undesirable?” What can prevent prosecutors from arbitrariness in their decision-making?

The bill is ambiguous, similar to most recently-adopted laws in Russia that restrict fundamental freedoms associated with self-expression, association, public meetings and others.  You will not find an explanation of how foreign or international organisations can represent a threat to “the defense or security of the State or public order, or public health.” It is very concerning there is no clear indications of the role of courts in recognizing a particular organisation as “undesirable” and potential sanctions against that organisation. It turns out that the Prosecutor General’s Office, in coordination with the Ministry of Internal Affairs or other federal agency, may unilaterally decide who is desirable and who is not. Such uncontrolled procedure can lead to arbitrariness on the part of the authorities.

In the case of the adoption of the new law, what specific consequences await the NGO sector in Russia, what would they implicate, and how seriously might the human rights field suffer?

If you look at the execution and usage of the Law on Foreign Agents, the situation is more or less clear with this bill. Despite the assurances of the authorities that the law is aimed at improving the transparency of NGO sector, 30 of 32 organisations in the list of “foreign agents” participate in initiatives intended to protect the rights of Russian citizens. Among them is the Memorial, one of the oldest and most respected human rights organisations in the country.

Russia already has laws that restrict and prosecute the activities of extremist and terrorist organisations, so the bill does not bring anything new. However, the differentiating aspect of this law is that it can be used as a lever for specific pressures, for example, in response to international sanctions, or in response to criticism of government decisions.

Does the NGO community have an opportunity to influence the situation before the final reading?

The bill does not specify that it is directed only against NGOs, it affects a wide range of organisations, including organisations that do business in Russia. It must be clearly stated to the Russian leadership that such laws are harmful not only to foreign businesses already operating in Russia, but also to organisations and companies that would like to work with Russian partners.

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