A court in Moscow has fined the prominent election-monitoring organization Golos (Voice) for failing to register as a "foreign agent."
Golos was hit with a penalty of 300,000 rubles ($10,000), becoming the first nongovernmental organization to be fined under a controversial new law requiring all NGOs that receive foreign funding and engage in political activity to register as "foreign agents."
Its director, Lilia Shibanova, was fined 100,000 rubles ($3,200).
Golos representatives have insisted that the new requirements do not apply to them since their group stopped receiving foreign funds after the legislation went into effect in November.
In a statement released ahead of the hearings on April 25, the group said it was "convinced" of its innocence
"The fate of many other NGOs," the statement said, "will depend on the decision" reached by the Moscow court.
Golos says it is being targeted for uncovering widespread violations in the 2011 parliamentary elections and the 2012 presidential vote, which handed Vladimir Putin a third presidential term.
Its reports of vote-rigging helped spark mass protests against Putin's rule.
Prosecutors accused Golos of receiving money for the Andrei Sakharov Freedom prize it was awarded by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee last year.
Golos insisted it turned down the money, which it said was lodged in a transit account before being sent back to the Helsinki Committee.
The court’s action against Golos comes amid a wave of spot inspections on NGOs across Russia, which authorities say is aimed at checking compliance with the "foreign agent" law.
"The fine is, of course, excessively high," Ramil Akhmedgaliyev, a lawyer representing Golos, said in Moscow, according to Reuters. "In fact, I stated this position in my appeal to the Constitutional Court. Fines or any other payments imposed on nongovernmental organizations or media outlets, as noted by the Constitutional Court, must not be excessive and must not block the activity of important institutions of civil and democratic society such as the mass media or nongovernmental organizations."
Akhmedgaliyev added: "Association Golos, I repeat, does not consider itself a 'foreign agent,' de facto it is not a 'foreign agent,' so the association will not register as such."
Since the beginning of this year, more than 200 NGOs in 50 regions of Russia have undergone inspections by law-enforcement agents and other officials.
Many nongovernmental organizations have said they would refuse to comply with the new law.
The ongoing raids on NGOs have sparked international outrage, with the U.S. State Department calling them "a witch hunt."
Rights advocates have denounced what they call an unprecedented crackdown on civil society and they have condemned the legislation as a throwback to Soviet times.
On April 24, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch jointly issued reports to call attention to an "ongoing assault" on rights in Russia.
A group of leading rights activists signed an open letter on April 17 criticizing the trial of Golos as "absurd."
The statement said, "The authorities are obviously trying to disrupt any nonparty efforts to institute civic control over elections."
The open letter was signed by Lyudmila Alekseyeva, the head of the Moscow-Helsinki Group, Lev Ponomaryov, who chairs the movement For Human Rights, Oleg Orlov, a top member of the Memorial rights group, and Svetlana Gannushkina, the head of the Civic Assistance committee.
With reporting by AFP, Interfax, Reuters, and ITAR-TASS