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Opinion: We fought the law but the law won – labelled 'foreign agents' in our own country

Our group uncovered ethnic profiling by police and discrimination against minority groups in Russia. So Putin’s “foreign agent” law was applied to take us down.

Stefania Kulaeva

A YEAR AGO, the Attorney General of Russia started to take repressive measures against human rights non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as part of the implementation of the new law obliging NGOs in receipt of foreign funding and “carrying out political action” (understood as any action to influence public opinion in order to achieve a policy change) to register as a “foreign agent”.

Anti-discrimination group ADC Memorial was among the first of the human rights organisations to face this repression. In April 2013 a prosecutor filed a case against ADC Memorial claiming violation of the “foreign agent law”. The crime of ADC Memorial was having prepared and published an advocacy report entitled “Roma, migrants, activists – victims of police abuse” for the UN Committee Against Torture.

This report provided evidence of an ethnic profiling practice of the Russian police, where special police operations against Roma and illegal migrants were undertaken which included all inhabitants of Russian cities who look ‘Asian’ to be subjected to a check. In many cases, those targeted had to pay a bribe or face being arrested.

A catalogue of police failures

One chapter of the report was dedicated to police violence against LGBTI activists and the failure to protect those vulnerable people from extreme-right militants. The police forcibly broke up peaceful protests of LGBTI rights defenders. The prosecutor was convinced after reading the report that ADC Memorial was definitely “influencing public opinion” with a clear intention to achieve a policy change, and even to “oppose the authorities and state institutions”.

The inspector scrutinising the work of NGOs reserved particularly negative comment for ADC Memorial’s recommendation to improve Russian legislation and to ban homophobic laws (prohibiting the “propaganda of homosexualism”) as well as the recommendation to adopt a Roma action plan, a migration plan and to guarantee the right to freedom of expression and assembly.

A barrage of legal obstacles

The legal procedures, courts, appeals and new complaints of the prosecutor’s office followed one after another and lasted for more than a year. The last decision took place on 8 April 2014 – International Day of the Roma – an interesting date to mark the final decision against the only Roma rights organisation in Russia. ADC Memorial protects the rights of many different minorities, but the rights of Roma has always been its main focus.

This final court decision agreed with the prosecutor that ADC Memorial was an NGO performing the function of a ‘foreign agent’ and had to register as such. The court gave us two weeks to do that. Disobedience could be regarded as a crime – both violating the law that obliges one to recognise a court decision and a violation of the notorious foreign agent law. Each of these articles of the Russian Criminal Code carry punishment of up to two years in prison.

Foreign agent: a phrase reminiscent of Stalin’s spy mania

That being said, no serious and well-respected NGO in Russia can agree to call itself a “foreign agent” – these words are reminiscent of Stalin’s spy mania (the word agent is synonymous with the word spy in Russian). Even more important is the fact that accepting this label would mean accepting that our human rights work to date has been “ordered” by a foreign state and was done only in the interest of the foreign state.

ADC Memorial was accused of undertaking anti-torture advocacy in the interest of Sweden because it had received a Swedish grant for publishing the advocacy report. There is no possible way we could agree that our work to oppose torture and police abuse in our own country was only at the request of the Swedes, or that we cared about these issues only because of Swedish money.

We did everything possible throughout the numerous court hearings to prove that writing a critical report about the police does not equate to “political action and opposing state institutions,” but is intended to protect the rights of vulnerable minorities through international advocacy within the framework of both Russian and international law. The Convention Against Torture was signed and ratified by the Russian state in the 1980s and became a law and an obligation for the Russian Government.

At a certain moment in the legal proceedings, however, it became evident that political will was behind the unfair treatment of ADC Memorial and that we would face further, heavier, persecution if we refused to register as a foreign agent.

Insulting and harmful label

Before the final court decision came through we realised that even the prospect of the label of foreign agent could hamper our efforts to work with state-dependent partners. Just one day after the court issued the judgement on our case, we held an important round table event on children’s rights that had been planned for a long time. Of all of the participants who were due to attend – the schools, the ombudsperson, the educational officials – not one came. Most probably, the prosecutors called their bosses and they were told not to come.

Clearly this label “foreign agent NGO” disrupts our work, our relationships and cooperation. The only solution we could see was liquidating the legal entity of ADC Memorial and becoming a group of independent experts in order to continue our human rights fight in this new, hostile environment.

The Anti-Discrimination Centre “Memorial” became the first human rights organisation in Russia to be recognised by two courts as a “non-governmental organisation performing a function of a foreign agent” and is thus obliged to register as a foreign agent. The only material presented to the courts as a proof of the organisation’s “political activity harmful to Russia” was a human rights report prepared for a session of the United Nations Committee Against Torture. Instead of registering under this insulting and incorrect label of a “foreign agent”, ADC Memorial closed its legal entity in Russia and chose to continue its work on minority rights protection as a group of experts under the same name – ADC Memorial.

Human rights defenders like Stephania Kulaeva and her colleagues have come under serious threat because of their legitimate human rights work. For more information on human rights defenders at risk connect with Irish-based NGO Front Line Defenders on the website, Facebook page or on Twitter: @FrontLineHRD

Read: Putin signs law forcing some Russian NGOs to register as ‘foreign agents’

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About the author:

Stefania Kulaeva

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