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Rights Group of the Week: Women of the Don

posted 4 Jul 2016, 04:21 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 4 Jul 2016, 04:22 ]
On 28 June 2016 for the first time criminal charges for fraudulent evasion of the ‘foreign agent’ law were brought against a non-profit organization. The NGO in question is Women of the Don, headed by Valentina Cherevatenko, that is based in Novocherkassk, Rostov region. Meduza, citing Vedomosti, has reported that, if convicted, NGO activist Valentina Cherevatenko could face up to two years in prison under Article 330.1 of the Russian Criminal Code. The charges are based on the allegation that Valentina Cherevatenko 'deliberately' failed to register on the official register of 'foreign agent' NGOs. Valentina Cherevatenko believes that the prosecution may be related to the activities of her group in seeking to establish monitoring by civil society actors of the implementation of the Minsk Agreements.

The previous week on 24 June, investigators had conducted searches at the offices of Women on the Don. RIA Novosti reported that the head of the Presidential Human Rights Council, Mikhail Fedotov, said that the Council was 'concerned by these actions of the Investigative Committee, considers them to be groundless and considers them to be an attempt to question the implementation of the Minsk agreements.' 

Also on 24 June Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, issued a statement in which he called for an immediate end to the prosecution of Valentina Cherevatenko: 'I am extremely concerned about the searches of the Union Women of Don office in Novocherkassk, Rostov region, Russian Federation, and the criminal prosecution of its chairperson Ms Valentina Cherevatenko due to the alleged “malevolent” non-compliance with the Foreign Agents Law. Women of Don is a prominent and independent NGO working on various human rights issues, including women’s and children’s rights and psychological and social assistance to victims of various human rights violations in the region. Criminal prosecution of human rights defenders under such allegations represents a flagrant interference with the freedom of association and of expression guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights. I call on the authorities to immediately refrain from prosecution of Ms. Cherevatenko and to allow human rights defenders and NGOs to continue their legitimate activity for the benefit of all of Russian society.'

As reported earlier by Rights in Russia, on 6 May 2016 and 10 May 2016 the Investigative Committee summoned Valentina Cherevatenko (chair of the Coordination Council and on the Board of two human rights organizations – Women of the Don Union and Women of the Don Foundation for Civil Society Development) for questioning as part of a preliminary inquiry into alleged evasion of obligations set out in the 'foreign agent' law. In 2014, the Justice Ministry designated Women of the Don Union as a 'foreign agent' in 2014, and the Women of the Don Foundation in 2015. Both groups challenged the  designation in the courts, but to date unsuccessfully. Both groups submitted additional reports and audit statements and informed the public that they had been listed as 'foreign agents,' as required under the law. The union paid all administrative fines imposed by the courts, and the foundation had applied for and received an extension. On 29 February 2016, the ministry officially removed Women of the Don Union from its list of foreign agents, stating that the group no longer 'carried out the functions of a foreign agent.'

In a statement issued on 17 May 2016 more than 150 representatives of Russian and international civil society organizations said that they were "deeply outraged by a new and alarming development in the campaign of pressure against Russian civil society: a potential opening of the first criminal case in the framework of the law on 'NGOs as foreign agents':"

"We are convinced that the Russian Investigative Committee's actions in regard of Valentina Cherevatenko constitute an unfounded and disproportionate interference in the operation of civil society organizations and violate Russia's international human rights obligations. Moreover, these actions can establish a dangerous new precedent for criminalization of peaceful and legitimate human rights activity, thus violating the foundations of a democratic society and the rule of law. We strongly believe that by prosecuting Valentina Cherevatenko, the Russian authorities have effectively brought charges against the entire Russian civil society. This case makes it even more obvious that the "foreign agents" law is unlawful, repressive and needs to be abolished. We express our support to and solidarity with Valentina Cherevatenko and her colleagues and call on other Russian citizens and foreign colleagues to join us. We urge the Russian authorities to stop their pressure campaign against Valentina Cherevatenko and the NGOs she leads - the Women of the Don Union and Foundation - and provide a favorable environment for the work of human rights defenders and civil society activists in the south of Russia and in the entire country, including by bringing the legislation on non-profit organizations in full compliance with international standards. We urge intergovernmental organizations to give special attention to this alarming precedent and use all means available to them to influence the Russian authorities and help put an end to the repressive enforcement of the "foreign agents" law and have this law abolished."

In a statement issued by Human Rights Watch, Hugh Williamson, the organization's Europe and Central Asia director, said: “The interrogation of Valentina Cherevatenko could be a watershed in the witch hunt against independent groups. A criminal investigation into failing to comply with the notorious ‘foreign agents’ law would no doubt stifle human rights work in Russia even further. Bringing criminal charges under the ‘foreign agents’ law would seriously ratchet up the already enormous pressure on legitimate human rights work in Russia. Not only should the authorities halt any plans to go down that route, the government should repeal this harmful law once and for all and create a safe environment for human rights defenders in the country.”

'Russia launches its first criminal case against a nonprofit for evading the "law on foreign agents",’ Meduza, 28 June 2016
'Заведено первое уголовное дело за неисполнение закона об иностранных агентах,' Vedomosti, 28 June 2016
Grigory Tumanov, 'В офисе организации «Женщины Дона» начались обыски,' Kommersant, 24 June 2016
'Глава СПЧ считает обыск в союзе "Женщины Дона" необоснованным,' RIA Novosti, 24 June 2016
Nils Muižnieks, Facebook
'Statement: "Drop unfounded criminal charges against Russian human rights activist Valentina Cherevatenko",' Rights in Russia [via Public Verdict Foundation], 17 May 2016
'Russia: Rights Activist Interrogated - First Criminal Inquiry in a "Foreign Agents" case,' Human Rights Watch, 18 May 2016