Friday 8 February 2013

Two High Profile Russian Cases Coming to Strasbourg

This week, it was announced that two high-profile Russian cases have been lodged in Strasbourg, both in reaction to policies and actions by the government of Putin. The first, as several major news outlets report, is that the three members of the Pussy Riot punk band, who were arrested after performing a "punk prayer" in one of Russia's most important churches, submitted an application complaining that the Russian Federation had violated their freedom of expression, fair trial rights, right to liberty and right to be treated humanely in detention. Although their lawyer did not expect that a Strasbourg decision or judgment would be delivered before their eventual release from prison, he indicated that it was important for purposes of general justice.

The second important case from Russia lodged this week was by a group of eleven Russian NGOs, mainly active in the field on human rights: Ecodefence, Golos, Citizens Watch, Civic Assistance Committee, the Committee against Torture, Mashr, International Memorial, Moscow Helsinki Group, Public Verdict, Memorial Human Rights Group and the Movement for Human Rights. They complain about the much-discussed and contested ‘Foreign Agent’ Law which was put in place in November last year and classifies NGOs receiving foreign funding and being 'politically active' as foreign agents. Such a classification entails many restrictions and regulations and is widely seen as making the work of human rights NGOs, often partly funded by money from outside Russia, much more difficult. This application directly complains about this law as being, amongst others contrary to the freedoms of association and assembly. This is the press release of the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC) whose team acts as some of the counsels for the application:

Leading Russian Human Rights NGOs launch challenge at European Court to ‘Foreign Agent’ Law Today, an application is being lodged with the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of eleven leading Russian human rights NGOs to contest the recently introduced ‘Foreign Agent’ Law. They allege that this Law violates their rights to freedom of association and expression (Articles 11 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)), and request that the European Court gives urgent priority to their case. The case is being brought by the Russian NGO ‘Memorial’ and the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC), based at Middlesex University.

The Law was passed in November 2012 and has established a new classification of NGOs in Russia, the ‘Foreign Agent’. Under this Law, if an NGO receives foreign funding and is engaged in ‘political activity’ then it must register as a ‘Foreign Agent’ and is then subject to significant reporting restrictions and regulations. Any materials or resources produced by the NGO must be labelled as having been produced by a ‘Foreign Agent’.

The case is brought on behalf of Ecodefence, Golos, Citizens Watch, Civic Assistance Committee, the Committee against Torture, Mashr, International Memorial, Moscow Helsinki Group, Public Verdict, Memorial Human Rights Group and the Movement for Human Rights. Significantly, it is widely felt that the organisation Golos (“Voice”), which conducts independent election monitoring, was a contributor to the recent surge in the protest movement in Russia, which in turn led to legislative restrictions including the Law on Foreign Agents. The NGOs argue that the Law unnecessarily and unjustifiably puts them at risk of serious sanctions, including criminal prosecutions of individuals and the possible suspension of their organisations.
The applicants also say that the term ‘Foreign Agent’ has very negative connotations in Russia due to its association with the word ‘spy’ in the Russian language, which will therefore affect their reputations and their ability to function effectively. The lack of a clear definition of ‘political activity’ in the Russian legislation is also contested as it is believed that it could lead to the arbitrary application of the law by the authorities.As well as impacting on the eleven NGOs named in this application, it is also argued that the ‘Foreign Agent’ Law will affect more than one thousand NGOs across Russia.

“This is a very repressive law which directly threatens the integrity and the activites of Russian NGOs which play an absolutely vital role in scrutinising and monitoring the State. We urge the Strasbourg Court to move quickly to strike it down.” Philip Leach, EHRAC.

Comments from the United Russia party include:

President Putin: “[..] they are allegedly our national NGOs but in substance working for foreign money plays the music ordered by a foreign state [..] We have to shield ourselves from that interference with our internal affairs”

Mikhail Starshinov (the co-author of the law, member of the State Duma, and delegate of the United Russia party): “some political technologies [..] allow the destruction of the constitutional order of states with the use of NGOs and similar structures”

The United Russia party: “those NGOs which are engaged in political activity and are paid from abroad must have the status of foreign agent so the public can see who implants ideas into their minds and who pays for their work”

Comments from International NGOs include:

Hugh Williamson, Director of the European and Central Asian program of Human Rights Watch: “This disingenuous claim by President Putin and his swift signing of the amendments, despite domestic and international criticism, show his lack of respect for Russia’s international human rights obligations [..] The new law seriously undermines free assembly in Russia.”

John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Director for Europe and Central Asia: “This bill appears to have no other purpose than to set hurdles for many of the leading NGOs critical of the government and to make it even more difficult for them to operate in Russia. It should be repealed immediately”

Certainly a case to watch!