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Russia Investigates Extremism Watchdog Under 'Undesirable' Law

  • RFE/RL

Sova Director Aleksandr Verkhovsky

Russian authorities are investigating Sova Center, a respected research organization that tracks hate crimes and extremist movements in Russia, in connection with a controversial law on “undesirable organizations,” a move that could severely curtail its work.

The Moscow-based nonprofit said in a statement September 7 that the Moscow Prosecutor-General's Office had opened its probe after Sova published links to its past funders, including organizations that had been labeled “undesirable,” such as the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy.

“The prosecutor's office considers the posting of such links to be a form of distribution of illegal materials in the sense of the law on ‘undesirable organizations,’” the organization said.

"Sova Center has never concealed its donors, and linking to their websites was considered simply following etiquette, as the link only gives the reader awareness of the material, but does not directly spread it. However, in the current situation, Sova Center has been forced to remove these links," it said.

Asked why authorities had taken this move, Sova’s director, Aleksandr Verkhovsky, said: “I have no idea.”

“And this worries me. Because if the intention here is to put serious pressure on us, then it’s an open question what thoughts might appear in their heads next,” he said in a message to RFE/RL via Facebook.

Known for its research into hate crimes, extremist groups and, more broadly, into the growth in xenophobia in Russia, Sova is the latest in a series of nongovernmental organizations to face pressure from authorities.

A law passed two years ago gave Russian officials the ability to classify foreign nongovernmental organizations as “undesirable” if they’re deemed to pose a threat to Russia’s “constitutional order, defense potential, or state security.”

The move has driven major U.S. and other Western organizations that have funded Russian civil society groups out of the country, including the National Endowment for Democracy, which gets funding from the U.S. Congress, as well as private philanthropies like the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, and smaller groups like Crimean Field Mission on Human Rights.

That law followed an earlier one, in 2012, that created a legal category called “foreign agent,” allowing prosecutors to classify organizations as such if they get funding from outside of Russia.

Both measures have been seen as a deliberate effort by officials to clamp down on civil society groups and independent organizations in Russia.

RFE/RL correspondent Carl Schreck contributed to this report
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