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.
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.
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.