Kremlin watchdog slams 'unprecedented' NGO raids
Members of the Kremlin's own rights council on Thursday denounced "unprecedented" raids on activist groups, saying the searches were aimed at paralysing their work and muting their role as a rare critical voice in Russia.
Russian prosecutors and tax inspectors have in recent weeks staged a wave of searches at least 100 leading Russian and foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
"A mass campaign of searches of NGOs is unprecedented in the last 25 years," said Sergei Krivenko, a top official at Memorial rights group and a member of the Kremlin's rights council that advises President Vladimir Putin.
He compared the raids to the pressure on civil society under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
"It can only be compared with a campaign of 1929 when religious organisations were shut down en masse and 1937-38 when all foreign organisations were closed down," Krivenko, whose group was searched for several days, told a news conference.
Pavel Chikov, head of Agora rights association who is also a member of the Kremlin's rights council, told the same news conference that so far a hundred groups from 25 regions across Russia had reported searches.
The raids are being spearheaded by prosecutors and involve members of the FSB security service, police and even Russia's consumer rights watchdog Rospotrebnadzor, he added.
"First and foremost prosecutors are interested in non-governmental organisations involved in political activities, protest activities, criticism of the authorities and NGOs with foreign financing," he told reporters.
"Their possible aim is to paralyse NGOs for some time and intimidate them."
Rights activists link the searches to a controversial law forcing foreign-funded NGOs involved in politics to carry a "foreign agent" tag.
The measure was fast-tracked through parliament upon Putin's return to the Kremlin in May last year in the face of unprecedented protests against his 13-year rule.
Rights groups vowed to boycott the law, while Putin said last month that the legislation should be enforced.
Mikhail Fedotov, the head of the Kremlin's rights council, said it was unclear why so many officials including tax inspectors and fire inspectors were involved in the searches.
"Do they want to check whether NGOs make explosives?" he said. "They found that one group lacked a plan on how to exterminate rats."
Earlier this week, the EU called the searches "worrisome" while German officials said the raids on German groups could lead to a deterioration of ties.
A US State Department spokesman said Washington was "very concerned" by the searches.
The Russian foreign ministry's rights representative Konstantin Dolgov dismissed Western anger on Thursday.
"When they criticise us, our Western partners note that we allegedly violate international law," Dolgov told Russian news agencies. "Unfortunately, this is absolutely unjustified criticism. We do not hear any serious arguments from our colleagues."
In a bid to deflect the mounting criticism, the General Prosecutor's Office issued a statement on Thursday, saying the current searches were being carried out in accordance with a plan for this year.
The results of the checks, it said, will help determine "problem issues and ways to solve them" including by tweaking the current legislation.
In a separate statement, Moscow prosecutors said they had launched three administrative probes into a refusal by the head of the group For Human Rights, Lev Ponomaryov, to provide them with requested documents during the searches earlier this week.
In the latest searches, prosecutors Thursday also visited the offices of Russia's oldest rights organisation, the Moscow Helsinki Group. Its veteran head Lyudmila Alexeyeva led the drive to boycott the "foreign agent" law.
"Of course, it's possible to make our life a living hell, but we are used to it -- they make our life hell and we go on living," the 85-year-old campaigner told AFP.
© 2013 AFP