FSB conducts searches at ‘foreign agent’ environmental NGO in Karelia

posted 15 Sept 2016, 04:02 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 15 Sept 2016, 04:05 ]
1 September 2016

Source: HRO.org

FSB officers have raided the offices of the well-known Karelian environmental organisation SPOK (the Karelia Regional Nature Conservancy) on Lesnaya Street, Petrozavodsk, the Internet Journal Chernik reports. According to the report, the FSB searched the environmentalists’ offices for “cartographic material that could constitute a state secret.”

The raid on the SPOK office lasted more than 4 hours and the security officers seized computer hard drives and laptops at the NGO. SPOK management were not on the premises at the time of the search, and the FSB officers did not explain the reasons for carrying out the searches. The head of the organisation, Olga Ilyina, learned what had happened only after the search was completed. She is currently returning to Karelia from a business trip.

SPOK is one of the most respected Karelian environmental organisations, dedicated to the identification and preservation of valuable forests. The organisation was founded in 1996 as a group of activists working for the protection of nature at Petrozavodsk State University, and over more than 20 years, together with scientists, they have identified and documented all important large tracts of ancient forest in the region. Apart from this, the environmentalists have signed agreements with all the major organizations that have contracts to use forests in the Republic on a moratorium on industrial exploitation of the pristine taiga.

SPOK does not get involved in politics as a matter of principle. However, last year its members participated as individuals in activities to defend the deputy of Petrozavodsk city council, Olga Zaletsky, who had been arrested, demanding the resignation of the Karelian Republic’s leadership. Following this, as a result of a letter from “vigilant citizens”, an unscheduled inspection was carried out of SPOK and as a result the NGO was added to the “list of NGOs acting as foreign agents”. After re-registration, as a new NGO with regional, not inter-regional, status, the organisation resumed its activities.

Last summer SPOK spoke out in support of the residents of the Karelian village of Suna, seeking to prevent the felling of a pine forest near the village, where local people traditionally harvest mushrooms, berries and medicinal herbs.

The witch-hunt against ‘foreign agents’ in Russia’s non-profit sector was launched in 2015, and by the end of that year there were already 109 organisations on the list of ‘agents’. The organisations identified as ‘agents’ by Ministry of Justice officials have been forced to pay disproportionately large fines as well as facing significant damage to their reputations and finances, and several have been forced to close down.

Environmental and human rights NGOs have been the at the forefront of this persecution. At the 70th session of the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2015, a resolution recognising the importance of human rights advocates and the necessity of defending them was adopted and supported by 117 countries.

In 2015, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, stressed in a special report that, “new regulations have led to the closure of a series of human rights organisations, and other NGOs are engaging in self-censorship, taking extra precautions, and avoiding participation in activities which could be deemed ‘political’.”

The International Memorial Society has stated in a special announcement: "[...] The very idea behind the Law ‘On Foreign Agents’ is essentially alien to the principle of the rule of law, and not a single problem exists which it could potentially solve. The goals pursued by its authors were purely political and opportunistic, and its wording deliberately and blatantly introduces legal uncertainty. In effect, the Law ‘On Foreign Agents’ establishes a presumption of guilt for a group of organisations which have been selected on an entirely artificial basis [...]".

Amnesty International, the largest international human rights organisation in the world, has emphasised that, “the Law on ‘foreign agents’ is one of a series of measures aimed at suppressing civil society and freedom of expression in the country.”

Russian NGOs have repeatedly made known their opposition to the law and lodged appeals against it, inter alia at the European Court of Human Rights.

Human rights defenders have stressed that the law is blatantly discriminatory and has extremely negative historical overtones.

90 members of the Russian PEN Centre, which brings together historians, members of the Free Historical Society and Russian academics, have called on the Minister of Justice to put an end to the arbitrary treatment of NGOs identified as “foreign agents”.

As stressed in the report by the NGO Lawyers’ Club, Development of civil activism despite everything: Russian NGOs in the aftermath of the Law on ‘Foreign Agents’, in 2015 and early 2016 there was a marked upswing in the enforcement of state control (frequently on an arbitrary basis) against the activities of NGOs in Russia, as well as the emergence of new legal problems in connection with their existence, placing in question the legal existence and activities of Russian NGOs as an integral part of an independent civil society.

Translated by Kate Goodby