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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rights Group Faces Closure

The government agency that registers nongovernmental organizations said Friday that it asked a court to shut down an umbrella human rights center supported by two prominent NGOs, the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Union of Soldiers' Mothers Committees, over minor legal infractions.

The Justice Ministry's Federal Registration Service also said it successfully sued to close 300 NGOs last year and that more than 400 similar cases were pending.

NGOs said the lawsuits were part of a plan by authorities to clamp down on civil society, which they said also included the recent passage of a law restricting NGOs and a spy scandal purportedly involving British diplomats who authorized grants for NGOs.

The registration agency last month accused the Russian Human Rights Research Center, which brings together 12 NGOs including the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Union of Soldiers' Mothers Committees, of not having informed the authorities of its existence since 1999, Galina Fokina, deputy head of the service's department for nongovernmental and religious organizations, said Friday.

If the agency wins the case scheduled for Feb. 27 in Moscow's Basmanny District Court, the center will lose its status as a legal entity and will not be allowed to maintain a bank account, she said. Without a bank account, an NGO cannot accept outside funding.

Lyubov Vinogradova, the center's director, said it sent the notices in the past two years and was reviewing its files to check if such notices were sent in previous years. But she said she was sure that the legal action against her center was a sign of a growing pressure on NGOs.

"We feel ... that the attitude toward us has changed," she said. "All kinds of faults are blamed on us."

The registration service last year filed lawsuits seeking to shut 825 NGOs as legal entities, Galina Fokina, deputy head of the service's department for nongovernmental and religious organizations, said Friday.

Moscow's Basmanny District Court revoked the registration of 300 NGOs last year, Alexei Zhafyarov, head of the service's NGOs and religious organizations department, said by telephone Friday. The NGOs were not represented in court, he said, without naming the NGOs concerned.

Ninety-nine other NGOs had corrected their violations and kept their bank accounts, Zhafyarov said. More than 400 cases are to be heard later this year, he said.

The service demanded the NGO closures on the grounds that they broke laws enacted from 1995 to 2002, Fokina said. From 1995 to 1999, the laws required NGOs to reregister, and from 2002 NGOs were required to file annual reports and inform the authorities that they were still operating, she said.

Human rights groups are also battling last week's accusation by President Vladimir Putin and the Federal Security Service that several of them received funding from British spies.

The groups said in a joint statement Friday that the accusations, first broadcast on Rossia state television Jan. 22, were reminiscent of smear campaigns during the time of Stalin's purges.

"It is deplorable that journalists and state officials are discussing the financing of NGOs by British intelligence as a proven fact. Frequent repetition does not make a lie the truth," said the statement, which was signed by 85 activists from dozens of rights organizations across the country, including some singled out in the television program. "This provocation has reminded many people of the system of denunciation and slander in the notorious years of mass repression in the Soviet Union."

The FSB said last week it had uncovered British spies, one of whom had signed off on British government grants to Russian NGOs.

The statement said NGOs would take legal action to defend their reputation.

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, which was specifically accused of taking money from British spies, told Ekho Moskvy radio on Friday: "There are very well-known and highly qualified lawyers who are prepared to conduct legal proceedings if we decide to go to court."

The spy scandal broke 12 days after Putin signed a law imposing tough restrictions on Russian NGOs, mostly concerning foreign funding.