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'Foreign Agent' Label Spooks Russian Environmental Group Into Returning DiCaprio Cash

Russia's then-prime minister, Vladimir Putin (left), speaks with U.S. actor Leonardo DiCaprio in St. Petersburg in November 2010, after a concert to mark the International Tiger Conservation Forum.

A prominent environmental organization in Russia's Far East said it would return more than $150,000 in donations from actor Leonard DiCaprio's foundation after being labeled a "foreign agent" under Russian law.

Dmitry Lisitsyn of Sakhalin Environment Watch said on September 23 that the group had received the funding in July to help its effort to protect several nature parks and preserves on Sakhalin, an island off Russia's Pacific coast.

The organization said, however, that it was formally identified as a "foreign agent" by Russian authorities on September 18 because of the money from the Hollywood star, as well as from other non-Russian charities and foundations.

Sakhalin Environment Watch is one of Russia's oldest environmental groups and has clashed in the past with local authorities over development of the island's massive oil and natural gas resources, which major international oil companies have participated in.

Lisitsyn himself was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2011 for his work trying to protect natural habitats from damage by oil and gas projects.

Passed by parliament in 2012, the "foreign agent" law gives the authorities the right to apply that label to nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign funding.

Human rights groups and other independent Russian groups have sharply criticized the law, saying the term has echoes of Soviet repression and severely restricts their activities.

Representatives of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation could not be immediately reached for comment.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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