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Russian regulators have singled out RFE/RL, whose editorial independence is also enshrined in U.S. law, over other foreign news operations in Russia. (file photo)

U.S. Republican and Democratic lawmakers called for new sanctions against Moscow if the Kremlin moves to enforce stringent restrictions and punishing fines that threaten RFE/RL’s news operations in Russia.

The letter, dated January 22, also called on President Joe Biden’s administration to do more to bolster RFE/RL’s operations in Belarus, which has been roiled by months of anti-government protests following Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s declaration of reelection in August.

Opposition groups say that vote was rigged and many Western nations have refused to recognize Lukashenka’s declaration.

Russian media regulator Roskomnadzor announced this month it was imposing hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines on RFE/RL’s operations in Russia, accusing it of failing to comply with new restrictions under the country’s “foreign agent” law.

Among other things, the law requires certain news organizations that receive foreign funding to label content within Russia as being produced by a “foreign agent.”

The law also puts RFE/RL journalists at risk for criminal prosecution.

An independent nonprofit corporation that receives funding from the U.S. Congress, RFE/RL has not complied with the order. The mounting fines could potentially force the company to shutter its presence within Russia.

Russian regulators have singled out RFE/RL, whose editorial independence is also enshrined in U.S. law, over other foreign news operations in Russia.

“If Moscow proceeds with these actions, then we are prepared to work with your administration in considering using existing” U.S. laws to punish Russia, said the letter, which was signed by Representatives Greg Meeks and Michael McCaul, the top Democrat and top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Three other lawmakers also signed.

Those laws include the Magnitsky Act, the Global Magnitsky Act, and the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act -- all of which have been used heavily over the past nine years to target Russian officials with visa bans and freezing assets.

The Biden administration has signaled that it plans to take a new approach in U.S. relations with Russia, extending a major arms-control treaty while also voicing support for opposition groups, including anti-corruption crusader Aleksei Navalny.

However, Russian officials have already made several aggressive moves, including accusing Washington of being behind the massive anti-government protests that swept across Russia on January 23 in support of Navalny.

Navalny was jailed a week ago when he flew to Moscow after recuperating in Germany from a poisoning attack that he blames on Putin. The Kremlin has denied any involvement.

Crisis In Belarus

Read our coverage as Belarusians take to the streets to demand the resignation of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and call for new elections after official results from the August 9 presidential poll gave Lukashenka a landslide victory.

RFE/RL’s news operations “are a crucial tool to strengthen our allies’ democracies and prevent the democratic backsliding that opens the door for Russia, China, and other autocratic competitors to advance their own nefarious interests,” the letter said.

Since early in Vladimir Putin’s presidency, the Kremlin has steadily tightened the screws on independent media. The country is ranked 149th out of 180 places in the World Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters Without Borders.

Following the August presidential election, Belarusians took to the streets, accusing Lukashenka and government authorities of falsifying the vote. The protests, unprecedented in their size, have continued on a near-daily basis, despite a government crackdown.

The election result has been rejected by many Western countries, who have called for a new vote.

Zarina is a 21-year-old sex worker from Dushanbe. She's the mother of two children and depends her income to feed them and keep them clothed.

DUSHANBE -- Mavjuda, a Tajik single mother in her 30s, makes her living by finding customers for a group of sex workers in the Tajik capital -- even though pimping and prostitution are banned in the country.

Mavjuda, who doesn’t want her full name published, may soon risk losing her children in order to keep them fed.

Tajikistan’s parliament is set to amend the country’s Family Law in a way that would deprive convicted pimps and brothel owners of parental rights -- with the state taking away any underage children they have.

The bill is widely expected to be approved. Lawmakers and supporters of the legislation say it is aimed at tackling prostitution and protecting children. But critics say the best way to reduce prostitution and protect families is to create alternative jobs for women so they do not have to resort to working in the illegal sex industry.

Many woman involved in the business say they became sex workers because of the extreme poverty they face in Tajikistan, one of the poorest countries in Central Asia.

Mavjuda says she and the sex workers close to her have heard about the parliament debate over the proposed legislation. She told RFE/RL that women she knows are terrified at the prospect of being forced to hand their children over to the state.

“Why do [the authorities] think taking away our children will solve anything?" asks Mavjuda, who finds clients for sex workers under her care.
“Why do [the authorities] think taking away our children will solve anything?" asks Mavjuda, who finds clients for sex workers under her care.

Mavjuda is the only income earner in her family. She says terminating parental rights would only add to the ordeals of the impoverished and cause further anguish in their “already miserable lives.”

She said passage of the bill will not help anyone and will not bring an end in Tajikistan to what is known as the world’s oldest profession.

“Why do [the authorities] think taking away our children will solve anything? [If they care about us], they should help us find jobs so we can work and provide better lives for our kids,” Mavjuda said.

The drafting of the law comes after reports that police raids in Dushanbe and other cities have uncovered brothels. Under Tajik law, running a brothel or being involved in the procurement of hired sex is a felony that carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. Repeat offenders face up to eight years in prison.

Most of these women have at least one or two children for whom they are the only caregivers. Inevitably, what they do affects the minors. When the women are busy at work at night, the children are at home alone.”
-- Obidjon Sharipov, Tajikistan’s State Committee for Women and Family Affairs

Prostitution is considered a misdemeanor in Tajikistan, punishable by fines of up to $200. Repeat offenders face higher fines or up to 15 days in detention.

Sex workers often keep the source of their income secret from their relatives, fearing strong stigmas attached to prostitution in the predominantly Muslim society.

Tajikistan’s State Committee for Women and Family Affairs has been involved in drafting the bill. Committee members say they believe the threat of taking away the custody of children would force people to think twice before getting involved in the risky business.

Committee member Obidjon Sharipov told RFE/RL that the amendments to the existing Family Law would also protect the mental and physical well-being of the children.

“Most of these women have at least one or two children for whom they are the only caregivers,” Sharipov said. “Inevitably, what they do affects the minors. When the women are busy at work at night, the children are at home alone.”

Government officials and women’s groups say they conduct awareness campaigns that include so-called “morality lessons” for sex workers, trying to convince them to give up the occupation.

The lessons involve lectures by doctors, law enforcement officials, and local community leaders who warn about the dangers of being involved in prostitution -- such as the risk of becoming infected with sexually transmitted diseases or of falling victim to violence and human trafficking.

Where would I find the money to pay rent and feed my kids?”
-- Zarina, mother and sex worker

Some sex workers accuse police of extorting money from prostitutes during raids or beating and insulting them while in custody. Authorities deny the allegations.

“We get beaten up by clients, too. [If we call police, they] come and just write down our complaints, and that’s it,” says Zarina, a 21-year-old sex worker from Dushanbe.

Zarina is the mother of two children who depend on her income. Zarina says she has been involved in prostitution since the age of 16. In recent years, Mavjuda has been helping her to find paying clients.

Zarina fears that if the Family Law is amended in a way that forces Mavjuda to give up pimping, she would struggle to find her own customers and lose her only source of income.

“Where would I find the money to pay rent and feed my kids?” Zarina asks, noting that she hasn’t completed her education and has no practical jobs skills or legal employment experience.

Zarina also says she would gladly give up prostitution if there was another way for her to put food on the table for her children and pay the rent to keep a roof over their heads.

Written by Farangis Najibullah in Prague with reporting from Dushanbe by RFE/RL Tajik Service correspondents Shahlo Abdulloh and Sarvinoz Ruhulloh

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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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