Judiciary must not be used to liquidate human rights organisations | Den norske Helsingforskomité

Unacceptable liquidation of Agora human rights organisation

Unacceptable liquidation of Agora human rights organisation

Agora, a 2014 Rafto Prize laureate and a member of the Russian President’s Human Rights Council became the first nongovernmental organization to be liquidated by a regional Supreme Court on 10 February. – The Norwegian Helsinki Committee condemns this decision, which violates the human rights of an important organization, said Bjørn Engesland, Secretary General. Agora's chair Pavel Chikov met Prime Minister Erna Solberg when he visited Oslo in October 2015. Photo: Prime minister's Office

– Although the decision will be appealed to the Supreme Court, and is not yet in force, this is the first decision of liquidation based on a provision of the new Administrative Code. It shows the intention of Russian authorities to further limit freedom of expression and association, said Engesland.

Since it was included on the list of foreign agents one and a half years ago, Agora had already ceased to function as an organization. Its lawyers carry out their work in other organizational set-ups. Agora has not received any foreign funding in this period, but has none the less been denied to be taken off the list of foreign agents.

After initial tax inspections and accusations of tax evasion, the Ministry of Justice initiated further inspections that led to a liquidation request. The Ministry of Justice presented three main arguments to the court for Agora to be liquidated. According to the arguments, Agora has:

  1. Influenced public opinion to believe that Russian authorities violate human rights,
  2. Published critical articles on the website of the President’s Human Rights Council,
  3. Tried to be removed from the list of foreign agents.

On the basis of these arguments, the Supreme Court of Tatarstan ruled to forcefully liquidate the organization.

Pavel Chikov, Chair of the Agora network of about 35 lawyers all over Russia states on his Facebook page that he thinks the decision to liquidate the organization is upon a direct order from the Ministry of Justice. He warns other human rights organisations in Russia about what might come.

By 1 February 2016, the official list of organizations categorized as “foreign agents” by the Ministry of Justice comprised 94 organisations. Several other organizations are under scrutiny by authorities in order to be included on the list.

Agora’s lawyers are currently involved in 300 cases in the Russian Federation, including a range of appeals to the Constitutional Court. They are also engaged in 157 cases in the European Court of Human Rights; two of which are on behalf of Agora itself. – Based on such extensive experience we are fully capable of predicting the next repressive steps of the authorities, and will not be stopped by this decision, Chikov underlines. “Work to challenge unlawful decision or decisions that violate human rights is ongoing, and is highly needed in an increasingly difficult situation”.   

Agora has won numerous cases in Russian courts, as well as in the European Courts of Human Rights. – These legal victories have a substantial influence on rule of law in Russia, said Inna Sangadzhiyeva, Senior Adviser at the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. “Agora and other networks of lawyers making efforts to use legislation to obtain justice are important for the further development of constitutionalism and rule of law in the country”.

– Agora stands out together with a range of other human rights organizations, representing a new generation of law-oriented activists and experts, who are not afraid of challenging those in power by referring to the law. They are willing to stand up against an authoritarian state in protection of individual rights, she concluded.

Civil society activists in Russia do not give up despite increasing pressure. – We urge Norway and other democratic states to stand by these activists, who fight against human rights violations, using Russia’s own laws as their main tool, said Engesland. “To appeal to Russian courts for justice in individual cases is also a way of promoting respect for the independence of the judiciary and rule of law in the longer term. We should never give up supporting such efforts.”

Background

Since the 2012 Bolotnaya protests after the change of positions between Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, Putin coming back as Russia’s President, and Medvedev becoming Prime Minister, the pressure against independent non-governmental organisations and civil society activists has increased steadily. The 2012 law on voluntary registration as a foreign agent was supplemented with a law allowing the Ministry of Justice to register organisations on its own. The term foreign agenthas a particular negative connotation, and organisations registered as such face increased reporting and administrative requirements.

Whereas funding from foreign sources was a reason for inclusion on the list of foreign agents, the 2015 law on international undesirable organisations complicated foreign funding further. Two of the largest donors have so far been banned from supporting civil society organisations in Russia, opening for administrative or even criminal sanctions for the Russian recipient.

The law on treason is another threat for outspoken activists. Many activists have been arrested for breaking the rules for one-person demonstrations. 

The Human Rights Centre Memorial has gathered a list of about 50 political prisoners in Russia, including many independent activists who have been imprisoned due to their non-violent activities and views critical of the government.

A new definition on political activity has been introduced in draft amendments to the Law on Foreign Agents, soon to be discussed in the Duma: “to influence the development or implementation of state policy or the formation of state bodies and local self-government organs”. The list of “political activities” includes holding public gatherings or rallies, issuing public appeals to state authorities, issuing public assessments of official decisions, issuing assessments of elections or their outcomes, or distributing such assessments.

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