MOSCOW -- Veteran Russian activist Lev Ponomaryov has shut his well-respected human rights organization due to the country's controversial laws on "foreign agents."
Ponomaryov announced his decision to shut down his For Human Rights NGO in a televised interview on March 1, the day laws increasing fines for violating the so-called "foreign agent" law took effect.
Ponomaryov's organization was established as an unregistered group in 2019 after a Supreme Court ruling to liquidate his movement with the same name, which had conducted rights monitoring and advocacy for more than two decades.
The original group was shut down because Ponomaryov refused to register it as a foreign agent, a requirement of a 2012 law on nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign assistance and that the government deems to be engaged in political activity.
At the end of 2020, the legislation was modified to allow the Russian government to include individuals on its “foreign agents” list and to impose restrictions on them.
Ponomaryov said on March 1 that the law also now targets unregistered organizations, and therefore it is impossible for his group to continue its activities.
"We have a major problem here," Ponomaryov said. "We are in a situation where thousands of experts working for my organization across the country...may be fined en masse now."
Ponomaryov, 79, is a former Soviet-era lawmaker and State Duma deputy who helped found the Memorial human rights group. In 1991, he headed the legislature's investigation into the August coup attempt against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
On December 28, 2020, he was added as an individual to the Russian Justice Ministry's list of media accused of carrying out the functions of a "foreign agent." The government gave no explanation for including Ponomaryov on the register.
Russia's "foreign agent" legislation has been widely criticized by Western governments and Russian and international rights groups as an effort by the government of President Vladimir Putin to stifle dissent. Human Rights Watch has described the laws as “restrictive” and intended “to demonize independent groups."