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Russian lawmakers in the State Duma approved the proposed legislation on February 16. (file photo)

Russian parliament's lower chamber, the State Duma, has approved in the last reading a bill that envisages fines for those violating the country’s controversial law on "foreign agents."

First passed in 2012 and expanded several times since, the law gives authorities the power to brand nongovernmental organizations, human rights groups, news media, and individuals working for organizations deemed to receive foreign funding for political activity as a “foreign agent,” a label that carries pejorative Soviet-era connotations.

The law subjects these organizations and individuals to bureaucratic scrutiny and spot checks and requires them to attach the "foreign agent" label to their publications. They must also report on their spending and funding.

According to the bill approved by lawmakers on February 16, failure to attach the "foreign agent" label could lead to fines of up to 2,500 rubles ($34) for individuals and up to 500,000 rubles ($6,800) for entities.

In addition, organizations branded as “foreign agents” and working without being registered as such could face fines of up to 5 million rubles ($68,000).

The bill will come into force after parliament’s upper chamber, the Federation Council, approves it and President Vladimir Putin signs it into law.

The law, among other things, requires certain news organizations that receive foreign funding, including RFE/RL, to label content within Russia as being produced by a "foreign agent."

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 in the World Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters Without Borders.

The abuse of suspects in police custody is a major problem in Russia, activists say, and has persisted despite efforts to reform the law enforcement bodies.

TOMSK, Russia -- Sergei Petrochenko's family spent the early morning hours of January 28 frantically calling hospitals and morgues. Petrochenko was supposed to have arrived home from a construction job before midnight the previous night, but he had disappeared without a trace.

The family's uncertainty continued until shortly after 6 a.m., when Petrochenko himself called from an unfamiliar number. In a short conversation, he was able to tell his wife, Nellya, that he was in police custody, that he had been beaten up, and that his car was damaged and left by the side of the road.

Nellya Petrochenko sent her husband's sister out to find the car and she herself set off to find Sergei at the Krasnoarmeiskoye district police station.

"We called the number that he had phoned from about 40 times but no one answered," she told RFE/RL. Later, the family learned that the number belonged to Ivan Tereshchenko, deputy head of the regional Interior Ministry's Criminal Investigations Directorate.

"We weren't admitted when we showed up at the police station," Nellya Petrochenko recalled. "At that point, I didn't know that he had been beaten by the police, but from his voice I could tell that he had suffered badly. He spoke with difficulty, pausing often, with a labored voice."

At 10 a.m., Petrochenko called his wife again from the same number.

"I asked him immediately, 'Are they beating you?'" she said. "He answered: 'Not anymore. They have already beaten me thoroughly.'"

Eventually, someone at the Krasnoarmeiskoye police station told them that Sergei Petrochenko was at the Leninskoye district station.

'Show Us He's Alive'

"Apparently we drove them crazy with our phone calls and our demands to be admitted," she said. "At first, they also wouldn't tell us anything at the Leninskoye station. We sat in the waiting area for hours and begged them: 'Please, just show us that he is alive!' We were given a quick glimpse -- his face was swollen, he had a black eye, and he was limping."

Petrochenko's family was unable to learn anything further until Sergei was released on the evening of January 29, following a court hearing.

Sergei Petrochenko with his children
Sergei Petrochenko with his children

Because of his injuries, Petrochenko still has difficulty speaking and so he declined to be interviewed for this story. His sister, Yulia Sidorkina, and his wife told RFE/RL's Russian Service what he had told them.

RFE/RL tried unsuccessfully to interview Tereshchenko, the officer from whose telephone Petrochenko called his family, for this story. The regional Interior Ministry office also did not respond to a request for comment.

Petrochenko told his family that he had been driving home as planned from a job laying tiles at a local factory. He dropped his partner off at a crossroads near his home and then pulled over on Prospekt Mira to plug his telephone into its charger.

At that moment, about 2:30 a.m., there was a sharp rap on the window and a man's voice shouted, "Get out!" Sergei said that he asked to see the man's identification and instead found himself looking down the barrel of a revolver.

Terrified, he said that he was getting out and began to unfasten his seat belt.

"At that moment, he heard the glass of the driver side window shatter," Sidorkina said on February 13. "An unknown man in a black balaclava began beating him through the window. In all, several men beat him. His face was all beaten up. He had a black eye. His jaw was fractured. He had bruises all over his arms and chest. His legs were injured too, and he is still limping. We think he might have a broken rib and are going back to the doctor tomorrow."

Petrochenko was dragged from his car and stuffed into an unmarked vehicle parked nearby.

"He was sure that it was a carjacking," Nellya Petrochenko said. "They still hadn't identified themselves. They had no uniforms and no insignia. What was he supposed to think?"

The officers continued to beat Petrochenko in the car as he was driven to the police station. When he finally figured out that he was in police custody, Petrochenko asked why he was being held. They told him he had been involved in a theft from a truck near the place where he'd been detained.

"Later, a police officer came up to him and said: 'Sorry, man, our mistake. We were looking for another car,'" Nellya Petrochenko said. "Then they offered to pay for his broken window in exchange for him being quiet about the whole thing. 'And who will pay for my face?' he answered."

After that, the officer told him the "deal was off." He said, "Your relatives are making too much noise."

No Evidence?

At a court hearing on January 29, Petrochenko was found guilty of the administrative offense of disobeying a law enforcement officer. The court acknowledged that Petrochenko had been detained mistakenly by officers of the National Guard. Nonetheless, it ruled that he had "hindered them in the execution of their duties."

The case materials do not specify what exactly he did to "hinder" the officers. The file also claims the officers were in uniform and had identified themselves in a timely manner.

"For one thing, they were not in uniform and did not identify themselves at all," Sidorkina said. "For another, how could he resist them when they had a gun pointed at him? He was terrified and didn't do anything. They just beat him and dragged him out of his car."

A National Guard officer who is identified in the court file as "Pleshkunov" testified that Petrochenko tried to put his car into gear, which the officers interpreted as an attempt to escape. Another officer, identified as "Engelman," declined to confirm that statement, saying only that he had heard the assertion from other officers.

The court also found that Petrochenko had "injuries to the soft tissue of his head and a bruise around his right eye."

Although the court could have sentenced Petrochenko to up to 15 days in jail, it instead fined him 500 rubles ($7). The court may have reduced the sentence because the Petrochenkos have two small children.

Petrochenko has appealed the ruling. His family has filed a complaint of police brutality with the Investigative Committee and the regional prosecutor's office.

The abuse of suspects in police custody is a major problem in Russia, activists say, and has persisted despite efforts to reform the law enforcement bodies during Dmitry Medvedev's presidential term in 2008-12. The reform moves, prompted in part by cases of alleged torture and abuse that caused outrage, were seen by many as window dressing.

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting from Tomsk by Maria Chernova of the Siberia Desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service

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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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