MOSCOW - Human rights organization “Shield and Sword” has become the first Russian non-profit forced to register as a “foreign agent.”
This comes with the activation of a new law that requires any non-profit that receives funding from outside of the country to register as such with the Russian government. Activists say the legislation was prompted by the waves of protests around Russia’s presidential elections, and allegations by the Russian government that those protesting were encouraged to do so by foreign governments.
The designation is required of all organizations that receive any outside funding, and are engaged in any action deemed "political" or “activities, that are meant to influence public opinion with the goal of changing government policy.”
An organization with “foreign agent” status is then required to indicate that status on any and all literature it publishes, and ‘foreign agent’ non-profits are promised much stricter audits from the tax authorities.
Most human rights activists, including well-known organizations such as Transparency International and Memorial, have announced that they will boycott the new law and it’s still not clear whether they will be allowed to continue working in Russia.
Shield and Sword’s director, Aleksei Glukhov, said that his organization, based near the Ural Mountains, is complying with all of the law’s requirements. He sent an official letter to the Ministry of Justice, requesting to be included on the list of foreign agents.
Glukhov explained that by being the first organization to be on the list, he is trying to find out, on behalf of all Russian human rights organizations, what the Ministry of Justice will do next. “Our mission is to fight against torture and other violations on the part of the government," Glukhov explained. "We get funding from Agora, which is supported by the international fund Internews.”
In his opinion, in spite of the order from the Ministry of Justice stating that these organizations should be listed as foreign agents, the Ministry is not yet prepared to enforce the law on non-profits like Shield and Sword.
“We were barely able to fill out the form, which is on the website in an incompatible format. No one explains what you should do when you are named foreign agents," says Glukhov. "We’ll introduce ourselves that way at conferences, but if we don’t publish any materials, where are we supposed to advertise our status?”
According to the head of Agora, Pavel Chikov, if Shield and Sword winds up included on the list, then human rights activists will finally be able to understand the law and how it works from the inside. “We want to protest against this procedure, and we want to have as much knowledge as possible to fight against this initiative from the government,” Chikov said.
In his opinion, since the only people who have standing to complain about a law are people who have suffered as a result, Shield and Sword may end up a martyr for the greater good. “But it is an absolutely necessary martyr, since no one knows how to avoid breaking this law,” he added.
“When Shield and Sword is listed, we will be able to challenge not only the Ministry of Justice and its obviously illegal warnings, but we will also be able to appeal to the Constitutional Court with a challenge to the whole law,” explained Chikov. “Nowhere in the law is there any discussion of how to remove organizations from the list if they have ceased to accept funding from international sources. And that is illegal.”
At the Ministry of Justice, officials said that had yet to receive any forms from Shield and Sword, nor from any other organization. The official statement concluded: “The Ministry will issue an order regarding the inclusion of the non-profit on the list no later than 10 working days after receipt of the form.”