Court hears complaints on ‘foreign agent’ law

The Russian Federation’s Constitutional Court hears complaints relating to the law on “foreign agents”

St Petersburg, 6 March 2014

The Constitutional Court, under its chairman, Valery Zorkin, began hearing complaints from Russian NGOs on the “foreign agents” law on 6 March.

The third sector was represented in court by a member of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights (PCCSHR), Ilyia Shablinsky, his PCCSHR colleague and head of the “Agora” Human Rights Association, Pavel Chikov, and “Agora’s” human rights analyst, Yuri Kostanov.

Following his introductory remarks, Valery Zorkin, expressed regret that the Federation’s former Human Rights Commissioner, Vladimir Lukin, hadn’t been able to attend the session, and warned those present that political statements would be inadmissible, according to the Open News Agency. He was followed by the court’s rapporteur, Sergei Knyazev, who provided details of the complaints. Introductory remarks were also made by a representative of the federal ombudsman.

Legal counsel and lawyers representing the NGOs then argued their case to the court: “By forcing an organisation to be registered by a foreign agent, the state not only demeans their members, but also undermines its very modus operandi. At a meeting of the Presidential Council for Human Rights, I asked the Justice Minister a question as to the definition of a “foreign agent”, but he wasn’t prepared to give an answer” said Shablinsky. He also wondered how one differentiates between civil and political action.

Ramil Akhmetgaliev gave an account of an argument he’d had with a member of the Prosecutor’s office on how to apply an understanding of the dictionary definition of the term “agent”. “You can praise members but not criticise them, which affects the way an organisation operates. This is an infringement of freedom of speech. As the Public Prosecutor told the court “you can register yourself as an agent and criticise all you like. The law is discriminatory. Employer associations don’t have to be registered by an agent, yet worker organisations do. Where’s the fairness in that?” said Akhmetgaliev.

Yuri Kostanov reminded the court that the Russian Federation’s Prosecutor General, Yuri Chaika, had spoken of large sums of money that Russian NGOs had received from abroad, although he had yet to receive confirmation of this. In his turn, a representative of the Federation’s State Duma spoke of the rather “questionable” idea that the public through civil associations could participate in state affairs. A representative of the Presidential Council stated that “we would have liked to have found out how NGO money is being spent. Foreign countries will help us, but should not interfere” he said.

A Presidential representative asked for a number of NGOs to be excluded from the complainants. A member of the Federation’s Justice Ministry, Tatiana Vagina, reported that third sector organisations had received 40 billion roubles from overseas sources during 2013.

The Open News Agency reported that no questions relating to the role of the President’s office, State Parliament and Federation Council had been raised with the judges. After all parties had been heard, Valery Zorkin closed the proceedings, explaining that an announcement of the court’s judgement would be made in due course.

Earlier, the department responsible for implementing the “foreign agents” law submitted their response to the Constitutional Court to complaints raised both by the third sector and Vladimir Lukin. This made clear that officials and deputies do not believe that the law is in open breach of the Russian Constitution.

Author: Georgi Ivanushkin

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