Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on Russian lawmakers to withdraw three bills under discussion, saying they "would add new dangerous tools" to an already "significant arsenal of legislative weapons" being used in the country's crackdown on dissent.
HRW said in a statement on May 5 that two of the bills proposed by a group of lawmakers the day before would expand the impact of Russia's law on "undesirable" organizations.
One bill would extend the ban on participating in activities of organizations blacklisted by Russian authorities as "undesirable" beyond the country's borders, allowing the government to ban foreigners residing in Russia and stateless persons from taking part in the activities of such groups.
It also would allow the Russian authorities to designate a foreign or international organization as "undesirable" if they decide that such a group acts as an "intermediary," transferring funds or property to support the operations of "undesirables."
Another new bill involving "undesirables" introduces amendments to the Russian Criminal and Criminal Procedural codes to make it easier to open criminal cases on charges of affiliation with "undesirable" organizations.
'Death By A Thousand Cuts'
The third bill would allow the authorities to impose lengthy bans on potential candidates for the parliament's lower chamber, the State Duma, if they are associated with groups deemed "extremist," even if they were associated with the group before it received that designation.
"These bills are a far-from-subtle attempt to deprive the Kremlin's political opponents of legal means of political participation and to instill ever more fear into Russia's civil society.
"For years now, and with particular ferocity in the past six months, the Russian authorities have been trying to inflict death by a thousand cuts on civil society and meaningful political opposition," Hugh Williamson, HRW's Europe and Central Asia director said in the statement.
The bills appear to be thinly veiled attempts to target Russian politicians and activists even remotely associated with jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK).
A court in Moscow is expected to designate the FBK and Navalny's two other groups -- the Citizens' Rights Defense Foundation and his regional teams -- "extremist" later this month following a request by the city's prosecutors. One FBK lawyer, Lyubov Sobol, has announced her intention to run for a seat in the State Duma in September.
HRW emphasized that it was "hardly a coincidence that the bills are being proposed only a few months before the September parliamentary elections."
"There appears to be a clear aim to isolate Russia's civil society and force many of its activists abroad into self-imposed exile under a threat of criminal sanctions, as well as to delegitimize and punish anyone affiliated with or actively supporting...Navalny," Williamson said.
"Russian authorities need to stop the attempts to drag the country behind a new Iron Curtain and start demonstrating respect for fundamental human rights and democratic values."
The pressure on Navalny has intensified greatly in the past eight months, starting with his poisoning in Siberia in August 2020.
But it goes back at least as far as December 2011, when Navalny helped lead protests prompted by anger over evidence of election fraud that benefited the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party and dismay at Vladimir Putin's plans to return to the presidency in 2012 after four years as prime minister.
The elections must be held by September 19 and the United Russia party has been polling at historically low levels. Many observers link this to the government's latest crackdown on Navalny and his colleagues, as well as on other dissenters and independent media outlets.