Russia Votes On Controversial NGO Law, Rights Groups Fear Crackdown

By Nastassia Astrasheuskaya and Timothy Heritage

MOSCOW, July 6 (Reuters) - Russia's lower house of parliament gave preliminary approval on Friday to a law that would brand many rights and campaign groups "foreign agents", a move opponents say is an attempt to stifle protests against Vladimir Putin.

The law, presented by the president's United Russia party for the first of three readings, would tighten controls on non-governmental organisations that receive foreign funding by forcing them to submit reports on their activity twice a year.

Critics say the law, approved by 323-4 in the 450-seat chamber, is part of a crackdown on civil liberties and the opposition movement that has been protesting against Putin's return to the presidency for a new six-year term.

NGOs are also worried because the term "foreign agents" has a hostile ring to it reminiscent of the Cold War.

"This is an odious, repressive bill that seeks to halt the wave of public protests," said Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader.

The draft law could put at risk the work of organisations such as Amnesty International, which campaigns for human rights, and Transparency International, a corruption watchdog, he added.

Under the law, which requires three readings in the Duma and one in the upper house, any NGO that receives foreign funding and refuses to register as a "foreign agent" and comply with the new law could face suspension for up to six months without a court order.

The opposition Just Russia party boycotted the vote.

"The law contradicts the Russian Federation's constitution, which calls for political diversity and ensures every citizen has the right to participate in managing state affairs," said Mikhail Fedotov, head of Putin's advisory human rights council.

But Putin's United Russia party, which has a simple majority in the Duma, said the law was needed to guarantee openness about NGOs.

"The bill does not ban foreign financing, it only calls for honesty. As one says one's name when introducing oneself to others, NGOs should in the same way be saying who they are when they introduce themselves," United Russia deputy Irina Yarovaya, who co-authored the bill, told the Duma.

The right-wing Liberal Democratic party (LDPR) led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky also backed the new law.

"From the point of view of publicity ... order needs to be established, and we ask the Duma to pass the law. If someone gives money to someone else, then that someone must be seeking profit in it," said LDPR deputy Yaroslav Nilov.


GOLOS, an organisation that receives foreign funding and compiled allegations of fraud in a parliamentary election last December which helped prompt a wave of protests against Putin, said it believed the new law was aimed against its operations.

"Honestly, I have no doubt that this is primarily aimed against GOLOS," said Grigory Melkanyants, the organisation's deputy director.

Golos plans to open an account to collect donations from Russians in the hope it can end its need to seek grants abroad - mainly from the United States and Europe.

The law is likely to be rammed quickly through the State Duma and the Federation Council upper house, where United Russia holds a majority, underlining its importance to Putin as he tries to stifle the biggest protests against his rule since he first rose to power in 2000.

"It won't even take a month," said Tamara Morshchanova, another member of the Kremlin human rights council, whose recommendations have largely been ignored by Putin since his return to the presidency in May.

The ruling party says the draft law matches similar legislation in the West. It was drawn up after a series of moves to crack down on seven months of protests since Putin returned to the Kremlin after four years as prime minister.

Federal investigators raided the homes of protest organisers before a big rally last month and a law was rushed through parliament pushing up fines and punishment for demonstrators who step out of line.

Putin has now been in power for 12 years as prime minister or president, and could rule the world's largest country for the next 12 years if he is re-elected in 2018.

He accused Western governments last year of trying to influence the December election by funding NGOs in Russia, and GOLOS came under fire last year in a programme shown by a pro-Kremlin television channel that alleged it supported opposition parties. GOLOS has denied this.

Putin, a former KGB spy, has also called NGOs "jackals" who count on foreign support.

Civil rights activists have said they will ask the U.S. Congress to add the authors of the bill to a list of Russian officials under threat of receiving visa bans for their alleged involvement in the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who died in police custody in 2009. (Editing by Andrew Osborn)