The ‘Window on Europe’ is closing
At the end of May 2021 there were two landmark events regarding application of the legislation on ‘undesirable organisations.’ On 26 May three German NGOs — Forum Russischsprachiger Europäer [Forum of Russian-speaking Europeans], Zentrum für die Liberale Moderne [Centre for Liberal Modernity] and Deutsch-Russischer Austausch [German-Russian Exchange] — were declared ‘undesirable.’ Following this, other German NGOs declared they could no longer participate in the St Petersburg Dialogue, a civil society forum of the two countries that has been held in the city for many years. On 31 May, Andrei Pivovarov, former director of Open Russia, was removed from a plane that was already on the runway at St Petersburg’s Pulkovo airport and remanded in custody for involvement in the activities of an ’undesirable organisation’. These arbitrary and blatantly unlawful actions are based on existing legislation about ‘undesirable organisations.’ Meanwhile, on 18 May the State Duma adopted in first reading two amendments to this legislation which significantly expand and tighten its repressive provisions.
The first amendment amends the Federal Law ‘On Measures to Influence Persons Involved in Violations of Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms, the Rights and Freedoms of Citizens of the Russian Federation’ to prohibit the participation of Russian citizens and legal entities in the activities of ‘undesirable organisations’ not only on the territory of Russia, but also beyond its borders.
The second amends Article 284.1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, extending criminal liability for ‘carrying out the activities’ of an ‘undesirable organisation’ outside the country and making it easier to prosecute under this Article. Currently, it is possible to prosecute a person under Article 284.1 where they have been held liable on two occasions on similar charges under administrative law in the preceding 12 months. The amendments would make it possible to prosecute ‘participants’ in the activities of an ‘undesirable organisation’ after a single administrative conviction for a similar offence, and those declared to be leaders of such organisations to be prosecuted with no such prior conviction.
The list of ‘undesirable’ organisations, numbering 33 as of the beginning of June 2021, includes internationally recognised and respected human rights, educational and research organisations which pose no threat to Russian interests.
The very notion of ‘undesirable’ organisations is perverse since it knowingly implies arbitrariness on the part of state authorities. This was pointed out by the Venice Commission in its 2016 opinion. The threats to the ‘foundations of the constitutional order of the Russian Federation, the country’s defence capability or state security’ allegedly posed by those organisations recognised as ‘undesirable’ are abstract and unacceptably broad, as they lack the legal certainty necessary under law.
The procedure for declaring an organisation ‘undesirable’ by decision of the Prosecutor General’s Office without any need to provide reasoning is arbitrary in nature. The possibility of a judicial challenge to the decision taken in this way is a sham, since the court accepts without question operational reports by the FSB (as was the case with the American Free Russia Foundation) that contain neither a description of the essence of the alleged threats nor any concrete evidence of them.
As we see in all criminal cases under Article 284.1 of the Criminal Code (until now initiated solely on charges of participation in the Open Russia public movement, which even under the draconian Russian law cannot be considered ‘undesirable’ and has never been recognised as such), absolutely lawful actions in exercise of the constitutional rights and freedoms of Russian citizens are treated as evidence of ‘participation in activities’: freedom of speech and the rights of assembly and association and the management of property. The egregious lawlessness of criminal prosecutions under the law on undesirable organisation can be seen in the cases of Anastasia Shevchenko, Yana Antonova, Mikhail Iosilevich and others. Andrei Pivovarov and Yury Sidorov have now been added to their ranks.
The authorities are now preparing to penalise involvement in ‘undesirable organisations’ beyond Russia’s borders. The evidence in such cases will inevitably be based solely on operational and intelligence information that is, in principle, unverifiable. By simplifying criminal prosecution procedures, the authorities will inevitably expand repressive measures against human rights defenders, journalists and civic activists (primarily, but by no means limited to, those associated with Open Russia and Mikhail Khodorkovsky).
We demand that the Russian authorities respect the Constitution and our country’s international obligations, abandon the amendments to the legislation on ‘undesirable organisations’ and implement the recommendations of the Venice Commission regarding this legislation.
We call on Russian citizens and international organisations and authorities as well as civil society representatives from other countries to put pressure on the Russian authorities to implement these demands.
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