It was a banal traffic argument that turned Mikhail Masalgin’s life upside down.
On the evening of August, 20, 2008, Masalgin, an information-technology expert, had a dispute with another motorist in the driveway of his Moscow apartment building.
Soon after the incident, the other driver returned with a group of friends in police uniforms. According to Masalgin, they threw him to the ground, handcuffed him, and kicked him until he passed out.
Masalgin regained consciousness in a police station, where he told RFE/RL he endured a night of humiliation and torture.
"They tied my handcuffs to the ceiling with a rope and pulled the rope from behind," he said. "My arms were pulled up and my whole body, including my legs, was lifted off the floor."
Masalgin, who is now 45, never fully recovered from the ordeal. It has left him with lingering shoulder pain, stiffness in his arms, and scarred wrists.
He has also developed a steely determination to see his attackers in court.
Masalgin turned to Public Verdict, a nongovernmental organization that helps people like him seek redress for police brutality, a pervasive problem in Russia.
A Wave Of Inspections
But a wave of spot raids on civil groups, including Public Verdict, could threaten his pursuit of justice.
Like hundreds of other NGOs across the country, Public Verdict has been ordered to provide reams of documents following unannounced audits by prosecutors, tax police, and Justice Ministry officials. Prosecutors say they are conducting checks under new legislation that requires foreign-funded groups engaged in political activities to register as “foreign agents” -- a Soviet-era term synonymous with spying.
Noncompliance carries fines of up to $16,000.
Many NGOs deny interfering in politics. They have boycotted the controversial law and denounced a campaign of harassment, which they say is aimed at shutting down groups critical of President Vladimir Putin.
Advocacy groups, whose criticism of government policies has long riled the Kremlin, were among the first to be hit by the raids.
But the searches have also targeted scores of NGOs seemingly remote from political concerns, such as organizations offering medical assistance, battling pollution, distributing clothes and food to the needy, and, generally, improving the quality of life for ordinary Russians.
Their closure could affect thousands of families who rely on NGOs for services that Russians authorities have been unable, or unwilling, to provide.
WATCH: The Russian NGO Public Verdict finds itself subjected to government scrutiny:
Aleksandr Nikitin heads the Bellona environmental group in St. Petersburg, whose parent organization is based in Norway. It, too, has been targeted by inspectors.
“When it comes to many vital services, the government either does not want to act or has failed to address these needs because nongovernmental organizations are already taking care of them," Nikitin said. "Our lawyers help people in a wide range of situations, including in cases when their health is at risk. If we are shut down, these people will have nowhere to turn. But as far as I can judge, the current authorities don’t care whether or not Russian citizens will be affected.”
Agora, a legal rights group, says the Russian Justice Ministry and the Prosecutor-General’s Office have launched audits into more than 500 nongovernmental organizations in recent weeks.
Many groups have also reported inspections by tax police, federal migration, sanitary authorities, and the fire inspectorate.
Accusations Of Meddling
In Bellona’s case, prosecutors accuse the group of failing to keep a log of fire drills and say the air at its St. Petersburg office violates sanitary norms.
Nikitin says Bellona is likely to be fined a total of $20,000.
The hefty penalty bodes ill for Public Verdict, which faces far more serious accusations. According to its director, Natalya Taubina, inspectors are looking for evidence of possible extremist and terrorist activity. Like other NGOs, Public Verdict has refused to register as a “foreign agent.”
Taubina has insisted that her group focuses on assisting ordinary Russians, not on waging politics.
"We don't think we are foreign agents," she said. "First, we do not act in the interests of those who donate money to our organization. The only interests we defend are the interests of Russian citizens. Secondly, we do not conduct political activities. We deal exclusively with human rights, and we believe that human rights are not a political activity.”
Putin has long accused foreign-funded groups of meddling in Russia’s internal affairs.
The raids began soon after he gave a speech urging the Federal Security Service (FSB) to increase their scrutiny of such groups.
Rights activist Lyudmila Alekseyeva
Earlier this month, he accused NGOs
in Russia of receiving $1 billion in foreign funding since the beginning of the year.
This prompted 56 organizations to sign an open letter demanding explanations from the Kremlin for what they describe as a grossly inflated figure.
Activists say the searches are part of a broader clampdown on dissent as Putin scrambles to counter growing public disenchantment.
In the eyes of veteran human rights activist Lyudmila Alekseyeva, the Kremlin's strategy is clear.
“After bringing the business world, the judicial and the legislative power under its control, after mastering the technologies to arrange election results, the authorities are determined to tackle Russia’s last bastion of independence -- civil society," she said. "Civil society is increasingly active, and this frightens them.”