'Foreign Agent' law: NGO Lawyers’ Club wins quashing of fines against NGO Esvero

posted 26 Feb 2017, 09:00 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 26 Feb 2017, 09:05 ]
20 February 2017

Source: HRO.org

The NGO lawyers’ Club has won the quashing of unjust fines imposed on the NGO Esvero, known for its activity in the field of preventing the spread of HIV infections among hard-to-reach population groups.

Moscow City Court cancelled a fine of 300,000 roubles imposed earlier by a court of first instance because the organisation did not voluntarily register on the list of so-called “foreign agents”.

From 16th May till 10th June 2016 the Ministry of Justice Department for Moscow conducted an unscheduled inspection of the Esvero Non-Profit Partnership for the Support of Socio-Medical Prevention Programmes in the Field of Public Health, in the course of which it came to the conclusion that the organisation received foreign funding and conducted political activity.

It is very surprising that the Ministry of Justice officials regarded as “foreign funding” the receipt of funding from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, strictly for the purposes of combatting the spread of HIV infection in Russia.

Esvero actively worked in the regions, providing support for regional organisations in their activities in preventing the spread of HIV and in their work with HIV positive people living in various corners of the country.

The donation in 2013-14 to the organisation Sotsium in Saratov region is the only fact of so-called “political activity” by Esvero referred to in the decision of the Ministry of Justice Department for Moscow. The donation was used by Sotsium for a philanthropic project to lowering the rate of growth of HIV / AIDS infections in the town of Engels and in 32 other towns. “In Russia, every day there is an increase in the number of people infected with HIV. To put a stop to the epidemic it is essential to have the cooperation of all interested parties – the government, society, NGOs”, said Max Olenichev, directed of the legal service NGO Lawyers’ Club.

“However instead of giving support, the government includes such organisations in the register of ‘foreign agents,’ which only facilitates the spread of the epidemic. We shall continue to give legal assistance to organizations working on HIV-related issues, since the position of the government that for an NGO to work on preventing the spread of the HIV virus is political activity is absurd.”

The NGO Lawyers’ Club suggests that the law “on foreign agents” negatively impacts on the existence of civil society and should be repealed.

Translated by Frances Robson


The period 2015-16 has seen a tightening of (often arbitrary) state control over NGOs in Russia and the creation of new legal problems threatening their existence. As pointed out in a study entitled “Contrary to the Development of Civil Activism: Russian NGOs Following the Adoption of the ‘Foreign Agents’ Law,” this has put in jeopardy both the legal existence of NGOs and their activities as an essential element of an independent civil society. 

By the end of 2015, 109 Russian NGOs had been registered as “foreign agents." Organisations named by Justice Ministry officials as “agents” have been ordered to pay disproportionately large fines. They have faced reputational and financial costs, and some have been forced into liquidation. 

The NGOs most likely to be targeted and persecuted are those working on environmental and human rights issues. At its 70th session in 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution recognising the important role played by human rights defenders and their need for protection. The resolution was supported by 117 UN member-states. 

In a special report published in 2015, the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner, Nils Muiznieks, noted that “the new regulations have led to the closure of a whole number of human rights organisations, while other NGOs are now engaging in self-censorship, protecting themselves by refusing to take part in actions that might be defined as political.” 

The international human rights organisation Memorial underlined in a special report that “…the conception of the Law on ‘Foreign Agents’ is not based on the principle of the rule of law. There is no problem that this law would resolve. It is clear that the intentions of those who initiated this law were purely political and that the law’s wording is deliberately ambiguous. The Law effectively introduces the presumption of guilt for an artificially selected group of organisations...”. 

The world’s largest human rights organisation, Amnesty International, has argued that “the ‘so-called’ Law on Foreign Agents is one of a series of measures aimed at suppressing civil society and freedom of expression [in Russia].” 

Russian NGOs have repeatedly expressed their opposition to the law and appealed against it, including to the European Court of Human Rights. 

Human rights defenders argue that the law is clearly discriminatory and has an extremely negative historical context. Ninety members of the Russian PEN Centre, together with historians, members of the Free Historical Society and other Russian academics have appealed to the Ministry of Justice demanding an end to the arbitrary treatment of NGOs listed as "foreign agents."