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Russian HIV Prevention Group Closes After Fine Under 'Foreign-Agent' Law

A man is given a blood test at a mobile HIV testing unit in Yekaterinburg. (file photo)

A Russian nongovernmental organization focused on preventing the spread of the HIV virus that causes AIDS says it has closed its office in the Siberian region of Altai Krai because it has not been able to raise funds to pay a fine for refusing to register in Russia as a “foreign agent.”

Maks Olenichev, a lawyer for the Vybor (The Choice) HIV prevention group, told Russia's daily Kommersant newspaper that the organization was unable to collect enough donations to pay the 150,000 rubles ($2,300) fine.

Last week, the Altai Krai regional court upheld a decision by a lower court in the city of Biisk to levy the fine against Vybor.

Charges against the group were filed under a controversial 2012 law that requires NGOs receiving foreign funding and engaging in political activities to register as "foreign agents" and to regularly proclaim their status.

Civil society advocates say the law is aimed at bolstering Kremlin control over Russian society

Olenichev said Russia's Justice Ministry added the HIV prevention group to the registry of foreign agents in 2017, claiming that Vybor received financial support from foreign organizations in 2014 and 2016.

The lower court also ruled that Vybor's activities were political because it distributed more than 100,000 disposable syringes and 20,000 condoms among residents of Biisk, where its office was located.

Vybor's representatives argue that one of the organizations the court determined was "foreign" was actually Russian.

They also insist that activities to prevent diseases cannot be considered political.

The group says it conducted thousands of anonymous HIV tests in recent years to help residents determine whether they were HIV positive.

Last week, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control and the World Health Organization's European office said that almost 160,000 people were newly diagnosed with HIV in Europe in 2017.

It said 75 percent of the new cases were in Russia and Ukraine.

Based on reporting by Kommersant