Russia: Writers and Academics Speak Out Against Law on Foreign Agents
This post originally appeared on PEN International’s website.
Around 90 members of the Russian PEN Center, together with historians belonging to the Free Historical Society and Russian academics, have called on the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation to halt its abuse of power against NGOs deemed to be “foreign agents.”
Halt the abuse of power against NGOs
Statement by individual members of the Russian PEN Center and other signatories
On January 22, 2016, the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation published draft amendments to the notorious Law 121-FZ of 20 July 2012, commonly known as the Law on Foreign Agents.
We, the members of the Russian PEN Center, believe this to be a dangerous document aimed at further discrediting and systematically persecuting independent civil activism in Russia, including in the sphere of culture that we value so dearly.
The aforementioned law was adopted in 2012, and has since been used as a pretext for stopping or suspending the activities of a whole range of non-profit and non-governmental organizations, some of which had been actively involved in large-scale charitable or educational projects in Russia.
In the time which has passed since the Law on Foreign Agents was adopted, it has become obvious that this piece of legislation is destructive and repressive by its very nature. It has caused significant damage to public life in Russia and, as a result, nullified the opportunity to engage in meaningful civic activism guaranteed to our fellow citizens by the Constitution of the Russian Federation.
The law’s potential for harm is due in large part to the vagueness and ambiguity of its provisions describing key terms such as “political activity” and “foreign funding”.
This has made it possible for the unprincipled and politically short-sighted officials enforcing this law to slap the insulting label of “foreign agent” on organizations whose only “crimes” consist in criticizing various functionaries or state authorities.
High-profile and respected organizations which have been subjected to outrageous persecution under the pretext that they are “foreign agents” include the NGOs which form part of the International Memorial Society and several organizations which protect the rights of soldiers, uncover mass electoral fraud or provide legal aid to the public: Public Verdict Foundation, Lawyers for Constitutional Rights and Freedoms, Committee Against Torture, etc., to name but a few.
One particularly outrageous example involved the inclusion of the Dynasty Foundation on the list of “foreign agents”. This charitable body was funded from the Zimin family fortune, or in other words from money which had been earned and taxed in Russia. The Ministry of Justice did not deny that the Dynasty Foundation was solely engaged in providing funding to scientists, academics, teachers, authors and publishers of educational literature, but this did not alter its decision – a decision which was not only disastrous for the Dynasty Foundation, but also unfair and insulting.
Human rights activists and distinguished lawyers have repeatedly made urgent calls for the legislation to be made more precise and for the term “political activity” to be defined more narrowly.
However, the amendments which have now been drafted by the Ministry of Justice will merely make it easier to use the Law on Foreign Agents as a tool for the abuse of power and political persecution.
From now on, any activity undertaken with the aim of defending human and civil rights and freedoms, as well as any attempt to exert public influence over decisions by the state authorities – including local authorities – will be deemed “political activity.”
This covers any manifestation of civil activism or commitment to solving the problems faced by our society.
It is not only public gatherings, rallies, demonstrations and pickets which are deemed ways of achieving these “political aims”, but any public discussion or lecture.
What is more, any public criticism or appeal to the state authorities or their representatives to amend the provisions of a particular law or overturn an unlawful decision and so on will be deemed a political activity and grounds for inclusion on the list of “foreign agents”.
The amendments contain a proviso that scientific, cultural and charitable activities will not be deemed political. This is merely a sly ruse, however, since an exception will only be made if the organization has not conducted the activity, “with the aim of exerting influence on public opinion and decisions by the state authorities”.
We believe that these new restrictions on NGOs’ activities are unlawful, immoral and harmful to our society.
We demand that the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation rescind the proposed amendments.
We demand an end to the abuse of power by the state authorities against NGOs, and for citizens to be granted the constitutional right to engage freely in civic activism.
Tatyana Sotnikova (Anna Berseneva)
The following historians belonging to the Free Historical Society and Russian academics have also put their names to the statement:
Translated by Joanne Reynolds