Russian civil society organisations continue to challenge 'foreign agents' law


The case of the International Memorial Society returned to public attention in December. As previously covered in the CIVICUS Monitor, the embattled civic group vowed to appeal against the organisation's inclusion on the authorities' 'foreign agents' list. On 16th December, a Moscow court rejected the CSO's appeal. The infamous 'foreign agents' list has been used by authorities to criminalise CSOs who comment on political issues and makes civic groups in receipt of foreign funding vulnerable to persecution. Memorial was among the first Russian NGOs declared a “foreign agent” in 2014, having been previously fined $9,000 for its failure to voluntarily register. The NGO's legal representatives says that the law is being incorrectly interpreted by the authorities and that Memorial, as an international organisation, cannot be treated as a foreign agent. The Ministry of Justice on the other hand maintains that Memorial is registered on Russian territory and, as such, is bound to follow the national legislation. 

In December, Russian civic group the Glasnost Defense Foundation appealed to the European Court of Human Rights over its inclusion since November 2015 on the "foreign agents" register. They were designated a foreign agent after organising a school for investigative journalism, which authorities interpreted as "promoting political activities". Glasnost's submission to the court alleges that Russia has violated the European Convention on Human Rights' protections on fundamental freedoms and asks the court to determine whether Russian authorities have discriminated against the organisation. 

Meanwhile, local civic group Human Rights in Russia is monitoring a review by the Russian Supreme Court on the application of the "foreign agents" law to 150 organisations. Civil society organisations in Russia allege that certain sections of the law had been misapplied and that organisations had consequently been placed on the list of foreign agents in error. Thus far, the Supreme Court has reivewed approximately 70 cases and sent reports on those to the Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights, the body which had initially asked for the review. So far, the court is yet to find an organisation improperly placed on the list.

During his visit to Moscow in early December, Secretary General of the Council of Europe Thorbjørn Jagland set the foreign agents law in the wider context of repression of civil society, when he said:

'We have concerns, and I repeated them in my meetings yesterday, about the situation for civil society in Russia...Active civil society does exist, and it is populated by many passionate and effective actors and campaigners. But, it is also true that these organizations frequently operate in a tense and difficult environment, where they are fearful of the consequences of speaking out against the authorities. And we know that the situation in the regions, in which you conduct your important, daily work, is often even more problematic than in the capital. The “Foreign Agents” law, which targets NGOs in receipt of foreign funding and who conduct so-called “political activities”, clearly aggravates this situation. It is discriminatory, it is regressive and it has a chilling effect on civil society at large. For all these reasons, it damages Russia’s international reputation.'

In recent months, it has also become clear that this law is having a damaging effect beyond Russia's borders. The Russian authorities' use of legislation to starve CSOs of foreign funding is being mimicked by other governments in the region who also wish to silence their civil societies. 

Peaceful Assembly

In December, authorities detained approximately 15 people for reading the text of the Russian constitution out loud in front of a public institution in Moscow. One person was also arrested for a similar protest in St. Petersburg. Prior to their release later that evening, police had drawn up documents indicating that the group would face administrative charges. Six of the protestors refused to leave the police department without copies of the aforementioned documentation, a demand which delayed their release by another hour.

On 9th January, the Zamoskvoretskiy District Court fined Moscow-based blogger Jan Katelevskogo fifteen thousand Russian Rubles. The authorities argued that he had violated the procedure for holding a public event. Katelevskogo was also previously detained because of his participation in a series of pickets in front of the Ministry of the Interior in Moscow. During one of his detentions, he recorded and later published a conversation between policemen in which they discussed whether or not to plant evidence on detainees and then negotiate with the judge. Although the police officer concerned was later sanctioned by his superiors, Katelevsky has demanded that Ramenskoye police chief Oleg Muchkina and Municipal Court Judge Olga Golyshev be brought to justice.

On 14th January, mass detentions took place near the Griboyedov monument in Moscow, where a planned anti-crisis meeting took place in support of political prisoners and to call for coordination of the People's Assembly opposition. According to the Monitoring of Political Persecution website, more than 30 people were detained during the incident.


In December, the pretrial detention of Crimean Tatar activist Ahtem Ciygoz was prolonged for another three months until April 2017. According to Radio Free Europe, Ciygoz has been detained since January 2015 when he was accused of organising public disorder outside the Crimean parliament building in February 2014. On that day, Crimean Tatars and other pro-Ukrainian activists clashed with pro-Russian activists. On the following day, Crimea's legislative body voted to join the Russian Federation under the pressure of so called “green men” – unidentified armed individuals in green uniforms.

Another pro-Ukrainian activist Andriy Vynohradov was arrested in Crimea at the beginning of January. Vynohradov, a member of the Crimea-based Ukrainian Cultural Centre, was detained in Simferopol and reports indicate that Russia’s FSB is preparing ‘extremism’ charges against him and his wife, Natalya Kharchenko. The charges are reportedly based on a post on the social network VKontakte (the Russian equivalent of Facebook). According to the same source, the initial criminal investigation has been initiated against Kharchenko because of an interview she gave to Krym Realii, the Crimea-based arm of the US-funded news service Radio Free Europe. Vinohradov has said that he believes this was likely to happen sooner or later given the family’s pro-Ukrainian position.

On 10th January, journalist Vladislav Ryazantsev was beaten by unknown persons near the government building in Rostov-on-Don. Ryantsev, a correspondent with the Caucasian Knot, was attacked by five men but only one suspect has been charged by the court in relation to the offence. Concerns have also been raised about the lack of a thorough medical examination and the fact that a forensic examination will be held without his participation.