Major civil rights group appeals ban on work in Russia

European Court of Human Rights (AFP Photo / Johanna Leguerre)
The largest foreign non-profit organization in Russia which helps victims of human rights violations has appealed against a ban on its work at the Moscow City Court.

The Russian Justice Ministry has refused to re-register the Justice Initiative group. The ministry excluded the organization from the register of foreign non-profit organizations and banned its activity in Russia over the group’s failure to provide an annual financial statement and a work plan on time.

“Under the law, [financial] reports must be submitted annually by October 31. The organization did not provide documents for 2011,” the ministry told Kommersant daily.

The Justice Initiative agreed, but argued that a ban on its work was an excessive measure. However, a Moscow district court ruled the Ministry’s decision was legal.

The rights activists have appealed the ruling at the Moscow City Court.

“The date for considering the appeal at the court has not been set yet, but we hope for success,” the Justice Initiative’s executive director, Vanessa Kogan told the newspaper.

The group though is not planning to re-register as a Russian non-profit organization again now that a new law on foreign funded NGOs has been passed. Under the legislation, all nonprofits financed from abroad and involved in political activities get the status of a foreign agent, which makes their work in the country a bit more complicated. Heads of “foreign agents” that refuse to provide information on sources of their funding may be fined and in serious cases could face up to three years behind bars.

“We won’t try to register as a Russian organization any longer, because that would automatically make us foreign agents. But if we officially return the status of a foreign NGO, like, for instance, Amnesty International, we won’t face such harsh measures,” Kogan is cited as saying.

The new bill applies only to Russian NGOs and does not regulate the activities of the subsidiaries of foreign civil rights organizations.

Nevertheless, it is still a lot easier to liquidate a foreign non-profit rather than a Russian one. A Russian rights organization can be closed only by a court, while a decision on the closure of a foreign NGO can be made by the Ministry of Justice, lawyer Ramil Akhmetgaliyev told Kommersant.

Russian Justice Initiative provides free legal counsel to victims of human rights violations and their families and helps to bring cases of rights abuses to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The organization has won 109 cases so far. Over the past 18 months the group helped its clients, mostly residents of Chechnya, to win over US $10 million in compensations from the Russian Government.