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Russian Authorities Raid 'Thousands' Of NGOs

  • RFE/RL

The offices of the Memorial human rights watchdog in Moscow have been searched.

The offices of the Memorial human rights watchdog in Moscow have been searched.

Russian authorities are reportedly searching the offices of hundreds of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including those of Memorial, one of the country's oldest rights organizations.

The head of Memorial, Aleksandr Cherkasov, said on March 21 that prosecutors arrived "with representatives of another department," without specifying which department.

He said the searches were said to be aimed at verifying that organizations were operating in accordance with current laws.

Law-enforcement representatives then visited a different Memorial branch on March 22, according to Memorial's Arseny Roginsky. He said police were engaged in a "total search" of the premises.

New York-based Human Rights Watch released a statement on March 22 about the latest raids and thousands of similar operations in the past two weeks saying "the scale of the inspections is unprecedented." The group said the actions "reinforce the menacing atmosphere for civil society."

Legal Grounds

A law affecting NGOs that was signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in July requires nongovernmental organizations that receive funding from abroad to register with the Justice Ministry as "foreign agents."

The legislation makes it possible for targeted NGOs to be subjected to regular and unannounced inspections. Violations of the law are punishable by sizable financial penalties or potential imprisonment.

The law has caused concern among activists, who fear it could be used to target organizations that are critical of government activities or policies.

Memorial is one of dozens of Russian civil society groups that received funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Russia expelled USAID from the country last year.

Cherkasov said that in the Rostov area, prosecutors arrived at one organization on March 21 with health officials who demanded documents proving no one there had tuberculosis.

Cherkasov said similar searches were being conducted at NGOs across Russia.

'Thousands' Of Raids

Russia's presidential human rights council wrote to the country's prosecutor-general on March 21 saying it had been bombarded with complaints from NGOs.

In an interview with RFE/RL, council member Pavel Chikov said thousands of organizations had been searched.

"In St. Petersburg, they're inspecting 100 organizations; in Saratov Oblast, it's 70 organizations; in Krasnodar Krai, it's 40; and so on. So, the scale of this campaign spans several thousand organizations nationwide," Chikov said.

"These inspections should be completed by the end of April and there will be a summary report generated by the Prosecutor-General's Office."

Chikov is also the head of the Russian nongovernmental organization Agora, which provides legal services to civic activists. He said inspectors were checking a wide variety of organizations.

"In Krasnodar Krai, for example, computers were seized from [nongovernmental] organizations. In several regions, they've been checking ethnic and cultural autonomies and religious organizations," he said.

"In Rostov Oblast, for instance, they inspected a Roman Catholic Church parish, and in Novosibirsk, police showed up at a mosque."

He called the inspection campaign "unprecedented" and added "nothing like that has happened in the past 10 years -- or ever before."

Chikov said the prosecutor general's office had ordered every region in Russia to check all religious, political, and social NGOs for violations of Russia's vaguely worded "extremism" law.

Late on March 21, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow posted on its Twitter account: "We are following reports of the unprecedented inspections of NGOs taking place across Russia with great concern."

A U.S. State Department spokesperson told RFE/RL that Washington has shared its concerns about the raid with Moscow and will "continue to keep in close contact with those organizations affected."

With reporting by Interfax and AP and RFE/RL