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April 26, 2016

Russian Federation – Amended definition of “political activity” adopted in the first reading

On 20 April 2016, the State Duma of the Russian Federation (lower chamber of Parliament) adopted a draft law, in its first reading, which modifies the law “On Non-Commercial Organisations”, by clarifying the concept of 'political activity', introduced by the Foreign Agent Law 2012.

On 20 April 2016, the State Duma of the Russian Federation (lower chamber of Parliament) adopted a draft law, in its first reading, which modifies the law “On Non-Commercial Organisations”, by clarifying the concept of 'political activity', introduced by the Foreign Agent Law 2012.

Federal Law №121-FZ, commonly known as the 'Foreign Agent Law', adopted in July 2012, obliges all non-commercial organisations (NGOs), which are in receipt of foreign funding and are engaged in political activities, to register as 'foreign agents'. The organisations are then subjected to extensive audits. Supervisory government agencies are allowed to intervene in the internal affairs of the organisations and suspend their work for a period of up to six months if they are found to be in breach of this law. The introduction of the law has resulted in the closure of a significant number of human rights organisations in Russia, either because of their unwillingness to be referred to as a 'foreign agent' or because of the new measures which this law imposes.

On 19 February 2016, the Ministry of Justice submitted the draft law to the State Duma for consideration; “On Introducing Changes to Article 2 paragraph 6 of the Federal Law “On Non-Commercial Organisations” as Regards to Clarification of the Notion of Political Activity”. The Ministry clarified the concept of 'political activity' which remained vague in terms of what activities were to be defined as political. 'Political activity' is currently defined in the existing law as the organising and holding of political actions, and the influencing of public opinion “with the aim to influence the adoption,
by government bodies, of decisions seeking to change the policies carried out by them”. The definition adopted in the first reading goes into more detail, further specifying the forms which political activities can take and the spheres of action recognised as political.

'Political activity' can take the form of an event such as a gathering, meeting, or rally; participation in elections, polls and referendums, including the monitoring of these events is also considered to be a 'political activity'. Furthermore, the Ministry of Justice has included the distribution of information containing assessments of authorities of any level and their policies as a political activity, especially if such assessments are made in order to change the existing laws. This extends to public addresses and open letters to various officials.

The amendments state that the activities of NGOs are considered to be political if they are in the field of “the rule of law, public order, state and public security, national defence, foreign policy, socio-economic and national development of the Russian Federation, the functioning of the political system, state authorities and local self-government, the legislative regulation of human rights and freedoms,” and if the activity is carried out “in order to influence the development and implementation of public policy on the formation of government bodies, local self-government, their decisions and
actions”.

Some parliamentarians are of the opinion that the adoption of the new definition will eliminate legal ambiguity and minimise the abuse of authority by law enforcement agencies, as it will allow to better distinguish between the so-called social non-governmental organisations and those that are involved in political activities.
Human rights defenders in Russia agree that there is an urgent need to clarify the notion of 'political activity' in order to narrow its scope and prevent the inclusion of those NGOs, whose work does not relate to politics, as 'foreign agents'. The amendments, however, do not contribute towards this goal as they provide for a significantly broader definition of 'political activity'. In fact most of the activities of human rights organisations, that are aimed at influencing the decisions and actions of the government in the area of legislative regulation of human rights and freedoms, will be considered political. As a result, every human rights organisation that operates in Russia and receives foreign funding will most probably automatically fall within the category of a 'foreign agent'.

Front Line Defenders is concerned about the adoption of the clarification of the concept of 'political activity' in the first reading of the draft law. This draft law could have a significant negative impact on the work of human rights defenders in Russia, if passed by the Russian Parliament. Front Line Defenders reiterates its concern for the enactment of Federal Law №121-FZ, “On Introducing Changes to Certain Pieces of Legislation of the Russian Federation as Regards Regulation of Activities of Non-Commercial Organisations Performing the Functions of Foreign Agents”.

Front Line Defenders urges the authorities in Russia to:

  • Withdraw the draft law “On Introducing Changes to Article 2 paragraph 6 of the Federal Law “On Non-Commercial Organisations” as Regards to Clarification of the Notion of Political Activity”;
  • Repeal the Federal Law №121-FZ, “On Introducing Changes to Certain Pieces of Legislation of the Russian Federation as Regards Regulation of Activities of Non-Commercial Organisations Performing the Functions of Foreign Agents”;
  • Guarantee in all circumstances that all human rights defenders in Russia are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals and free of all restrictions.

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