At least six Russian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have been subjected to unannounced inspections in recent days.
The raids were conducted by prosecutors in three different regions, and targeted well-known rights groups such as the Union of Soldiers' Mothers, Agora, and the Committee Against Torture.
The Russian daily "Kommersant," which first broke the news on May 13, described the move as the beginning of a second wave of NGO sweeps.
Thousands of NGOs operating in Russia were raided last year after the country adopted a controversial "foreign agents" law requiring NGOs that receive funding from abroad and engage in political activities, which are broadly defined, to register as foreign agents.
The latest raids affected organizations based in St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, and Kazan, in the Tatarstan Republic. The groups said inspectors conducted the sweeps without prior notice, and inquired about their finances and activities over the past two years.
The St. Petersburg branch of the Union of Soldiers' Mothers, a Moscow-based group that advocates for the rights of military conscripts and their families, was among the groups raided by prosecutors.
Ella Polyakova, the head of the St. Petersburg branch, told Russian media the raid was directly linked to the group's criticism of Russia's annexation of Crimea. "The prosecutors openly told me we had come to their attention after we posted an article on our website," Polyakova told "Kommersant." "The article criticized Russia's position on the Crimea issue."
The move comes despite a recent ruling by Russia's Constitutional Court that stipulates that criticism of the authorities is not a valid basis for considering an organization a "foreign agent."
The office of Agora, a human rights group based in Kazan, was raided with a similar pretext. Agora leader Pavel Chikov was reportedly questioned about an interview he gave to "Biznes-online" last year. The prosecutors, Chikov said, believed the interview indicated the group was engaged in political activities in defiance of the law on NGOs.
Last year, Agora, which provides legal services to civic activists, received a written demand from the authorities to submit documents about its funding, activities, assets, as well as a list of its employees.
NGOs A 'Foreign Threat'
Hundreds of NGOs operating in Russia have come under legal scrutiny and other pressure since authorities have begun enforcing the controversial "foreign agent" law.
The election-monitoring group Golos was among the first NGOs punished under the law in 2013, when it was suspended and fined $10,000 after refusing to register as a foreign agent. Grigory Melkonyants, deputy head of Golos, told RFE/RL's Russian Service the law has allowed authorities to easily find a pretext to punish NGOs.
"There is a very difficult period ahead for NGOs," he said. "They run the risk of being automatically placed on various lists, face serious penalties, their activities can be suspended. Farther down the road there is the risk of being closed down by courts. That would be an extreme measure, but I'm afraid we will see that happen, too."
Keir Giles, an associate fellow with the International Security and Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House, London, says the latest raid on Russian NGOs is "part of an ongoing process" and that it shouldn't be seen as a new phenomenon. However, Giles suggests that amid the ongoing confrontation between Russian and the West, Russian authorities "now care less about Russia's international image than they did when relationships with the West were better."
NGOs operating in Russia are a "source of criticism, and potentially, influential criticism of Kremlin policies," Giles says. "And at the same time, if they are sponsored from abroad, then that effectively is interpreted -- accordingly to Russian security doctrine -- as a foreign threat."
"This is a kind of payment for political subversion in Russian eyes," Giles adds, "which led to, for example, the original evens in Ukraine, to 'color revolutions.'"