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article imageAmnesty urges Russia to abolish 'foreign agent' law

By Olga Rotenberg (AFP)     Nov 18, 2016 in World

Amnesty International on Friday called on Russia to abolish a law targeting overseas-backed campaign groups, which has been used to crack down on more than 100 organisations labelled "foreign agents".

Days ahead of the fourth anniversary of the law coming into force, the rights watchdog urged Russia to reverse the "devastating consequences" for activist groups and "repeal the 'foreign agents' law".

The law obliges groups with so-called "political" activities and international funding to call themselves "foreign agents", a term that recalls Stalin-era repression and Cold War espionage.

The rules have seen some organisations reject much-needed funding from abroad, while others have closed down since it took effect on November 21, 2012.

The report warns that "given the insufficient funding resources within Russia, independent NGOs are put on the brink of extinction".

"Many organisations have closed. Others have reduced the extent of their activities," Amnesty's Russia director Sergei Nikitin said at a news conference in Moscow.

"The number of services offered by NGOs has fallen significantly."

President Vladimir Putin approved the law shortly after his reelection, following a wave of huge public protests against his return to power. It has ushered in a massive crackdown on civil society.

In the last four years, 148 non-governmental organisations have been included on the list of "foreign agents" in Russia, of which 27 have closed down altogether, Amnesty said.

Amnesty warned of a "very grave risk for the future of civil society" when "only those NGOs that support government policy without question" will survive.

It called on Russia to cancel the law and meanwhile immediately suspend its use and cease adding new groups to the list.

- 'Dirty political label' -

The law "was designed to shackle, stigmatise, and ultimately silence critical NGOs," Amnesty's Nikitin said.

Russia has used the law to label the most prominent groups that criticise government policy, including the leading Memorial rights organisation and Golos election observer group as well as HIV-prevention groups, ecological activists and those who work with victims of torture.

A member of the Kremlin Human Rights Council, which advises the president, lawyer Ilya Shablinsky, on Friday called the law "a disgraceful episode" in comments to Interfax news agency and warned that "it could last for a long time."

He said that the "foreign agent" tag was "a dirty political label" that is not a legal term.

The measure comes as Russian officials have accused the West of trying to undermine the country, characterising internal criticism as the work of spies and traitors.

The organisations branded "foreign agents" are required to submit documents every three months outlining details of their funding.

They are also obliged to carry the "foreign agent" tag on materials they publish, among a number of other requirements.

Amnesty International presented the report as its staff had been shut out of its Moscow office for 16 days with the municipal authorities citing rent arrears, a claim the group denied.

Nikitin on Friday blamed a "technical error" by the authorities and said the office would be reopened later that day.

Amnesty's Europe director John Dalhuisen confirmed on Twitter later Friday that the office has been reopened and a new lease signed.

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