Russian anti-torture group to close over ‘foreign agent’ tag
A top Russian rights group supporting torture victims including in Chechnya said Tuesday it is being forced to close after being branded a "foreign agent" but will relaunch under a new name.
The move is part of a legal onslaught backed by President Vladimir Putin against Russia’s nascent civil society, including a law banning “undesirable” foreign organisations which was applied for the first time on Tuesday against a US democracy foundation.
As part of an anti-Western drive, the justice ministry has ordered that the Committee Against Torture call itself a “foreign agent” — a tag redolent of Cold War espionage — for paperwork and public appearances.
The 15-year-old group will cease its activities next Monday as a direct result of the law, its leader Igor Kalyapin said at a news conference in Moscow.
“From next week the committee will stop functioning,” he said.
“The only reason that forces us to do this is the law on naming ourselves foreign agents.”
“It was not a fun decision to make, but in fact it was simple.”
– ‘Unacceptable label’ –
The group has already run up two fines for flouting the law, Kalyapin said.
Russia has drawn up a list of 81 “foreign agents” — NGOs with foreign funding and so-called “political” agendas.
These organisations theoretically can carry on with their activities but activists have rejected the label.
Kalyapin said his group cannot accept the foreign agent tag because it means it is following another country’s orders.
“It goes without saying it’s unacceptable because it’s simply not true.”
Kalyapin said the campaigners will regroup under a new name, the Committee to Prevent Torture.
To avoid falling under the law again, the group will be unable to receive international grants, only Russian donations, he said. Almost half of the group’s budget had come from international funds.
Kalyapin said the group would also open six new NGOs that will avoid any public activity and so may be able to receive foreign funding.
The group’s “activity will continue notwithstanding any (legal) status,” he said.
“We will find a way to answer back.”
Nevertheless, the changes jeopardise the group’s costly legal work, Kalyapin acknowledged.
The committee has a group working in Chechnya that has come under public attack from Putin-loyalist leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
In June, masked attackers ransacked the group’s office in Grozny, forcing employees to escape out the window.
Protesters carried placards lambasting Kalyapin and police only arrived on the scene two hours after the raid.
The case is barely being investigated, Kalyapin said.
The group will continue to work in Chechnya as a “matter of principle”, he vowed.
Through the work of the Committee Against Torture, 107 police officers are behind bars and 13 more are currently on trial, Kalyapin said.