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Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch (file photo)

Russian individuals and groups are being persecuted for posting hyperlinks to websites of foreign organizations declared "undesirable" under legislation signed by President Vladimir Putin in 2015, Human Rights Watch says.

In a development it suggested was "absurd" but predictable, HRW said on November 30 that the government is using the "draconian and deliberately vague law" to target Russians it claims are linked to "undesirable" foreign organizations.

The law, widely condemned in the West, allows Russia's prosecutor-general to ban as "undesirable" any foreign NGO or organization deemed to be an unspecified threat to national security.

It also prohibits Russian individuals or groups from accepting money from such banned groups or disseminating their materials.

Since 2015, Russia has blacklisted 11 organizations under the law, most of them American, according to HRW.

'Undesirables'

The New York-based rights group said the Russian government had filed charges against at least 11 Russian organizations since early 2016 for alleged "participation in the activities of undesirable organizations."

In all 11 cases, it said, the charges stem from hyperlinks to websites of foreign "undesirables" on the websites of the targeted Russian organizations.

"From the start, it seemed clear that the true target of the 'undesirables' law would be Russian groups and citizens," said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

"Now, we’re seeing that the authorities are using the law, quite absurdly, to penalize Russian groups for supposed involvement with the ‘undesirables," he said.

'Deliberately Vague'

Human Rights Watch said that, in all cases, the implicated Russian organizations had linked to materials that had been posted before the foreign organizations were banned.

Five of the Russian organizations are based in the Samara region, three in Moscow, and one each in Bashkortostan, Volgograd, and Yaroslavl.

Ten of the groups lost court cases in which prosecutors argued that linking to a website amounted to inviting Russian users to read these materials, and therefore qualified as "participation in the activities" of the banned organization. The case of one remaining group is pending.

Only three of the 11 affected groups have spoken publicly about their cases: the SOVA Center and the Andrey Rylkov Foundation, both in Moscow, and the Social Partnerships Center in Yaroslavl.

HRW also said Russian courts had fined at least two activists for their supposed ties to Open Russia, one of the banned "undesirable" organizations, which is affiliated with the exiled former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

"The authorities are casting a wide net, penalizing groups that aren’t even critical of the authorities for something they could not imagine would constitute an offense under a draconian and deliberately vague law, and for actions that obviously have nothing to do with Russian state security,” Williamson said.

Russian historian Yury Dmitriyevin police custody earlier this year.

A lawyer for a Russian historian who is being tried on child pornography charges his supporters say are politically motivated has asked a court to move his client from jail to house arrest.

Defense attorney Viktor Anufriyev made the request at a November 29 hearing in Yury Dmitriyev's trial in Petrozavodsk, the capital of the northwestern region of Karelia.

The judge did not rule on the motion and adjourned the trial until November 30 after hearing testimony from witnesses.

Dmitriyev, who heads the Karelia chapter of the human rights group Memorial, has worked for decades to expose crimes committed there by the Soviet state under dictator Josef Stalin.

Investigators say Dmitriyev intended to use 49 nude photos of his foster daughter Natasha that were found in his personal computer to create pornographic material to share online. He is charged with "preparing and distributing child pornography."

Dmitriyev, his lawyer, and colleagues say the photos were taken because medical workers had asked him to monitor the health and development of the girl, who was malnourished and unhealthy when he and his wife took her in at age 3 with the intention of adopting her.

Each photograph was accompanied by notation of the girl's height, weight, and general health. Many of them appear to have been taken ahead of scheduled visits by social workers, possibly to document that Natasha had been well treated. According to social-services reports, nothing suspicious was ever noted.

Dmitriyev was arrested in December 2016 and went on trial on June 1.

With reporting by rk.karelia.ru

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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