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Council Of Europe Decries 'Chilling Effect' Of Russia's NGO Raids

Activists hold placards outside the office of the election monitoring nongovernmental body Golos, during a protest against the organization's alleged foreign connections in Moscow on April 5.
The Council of Europe has said that Russia is interfering with the work of nongovernmental organizations with new restrictive laws and a string of spot inspections.

Speaking April 11 in Moscow, Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe's human rights envoy, said a new law requiring some NGOs to register as "foreign agents" -- a Soviet-era term synonymous with spying -- was having "a chilling effect."

Russian President Vladimir Putin has dismissed criticism of the checks, including from the United States and Europe.

Earlier this week on German TV, Putin said Russians have a right to know who is funding NGOs and "for what."

Leading rights groups have refused to register as foreign agents, saying it would damage their credibility and support.

The legal advocacy rights groups Agora said it knew of 225 NGOs whose offices had been inspected but said that was only a fraction of the total.

Earlier this week, Russia's Justice Ministry said it is filing a legal case against Golos, the country's only independent elections monitoring group for allegedly failing to register as a foreign agent.

Golos has dismissed the claim, saying that it has not received foreign funding since the law took effect.

Under the law, failure to register carries a potential fine of up to 300,000 rubles (about $9,500) for the organization's director and 500,000 rubles ($16,000) for the organization.

In his interview with German TV, Putin also claimed Russian NGOs had received nearly $1 billion from foreign sponsors.

On April 11, leaders of the country's top NGOs, including Golos, and the human rights group Memorial, dismissed the figure and called on Putin to document it.

"The figures that you mentioned are at least dozens of times higher than what we know about the amount of foreign support for NGOs in Russia, and we would like to know what organizations receive such big money," they said in an open letter to Putin.

Putin offered no detail on where the figure came from, but other officials said it came from law-enforcement agencies.

During his visit to Germany this week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Putin to give NGOs a "good chance."

Merkel said Russia needed an active civil society to flourish. She said Russia was now depending on its raw material deposits and infrastructure development to fuel economic growth.

Merkel said Russia needed to innovate and diversify and that NGOs could help.

With reporting by AP and Reuters
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