Staunton, December 11 – In what may be a testing of the waters of a further criminalization of dissent, a group of Russian Duma deputies has called for imposing criminal penalties, including as much as five years in prison, for individuals and groups identified as foreign agents (ehorussia.com/new/node/22328).
Their draft bill calls for fines of up to 300,000 rubles (4,000 US dollars) for those who do not follow the registration rules the Russian authorities already require and for a similar fine and up to five years in prison for those who continue to refuse to abide by these rules after being found guilty the first time.
This measure was submitted for consideration the day after Vladimir Putin held his virtual meeting with the Presidential Human Rights Council at which the issue of combatting foreign agents was discussed and is needed, the deputies say, so that “foreign agents” won’t gather intelligence that could be used against Russia.
At the meeting, the Kremlin leader opened the door to such measures by suggesting that current laws are intended to prevent foreign governments from interfering in Russian life but that if there are broader risks, then the government and the legislature need to think about what must be done to counter them.
Putin added that the problem of foreign agents was less with those who get money from abroad than those abroad who pay them. “Those who pay Russian NGOs as a rule are involved not with strengthening Russia but with restraining it. That is the problem” the country must address.
Human rights activists are already expressing concern about how such a measure might be used. Natalya Yevdokimova, secretary of the Human Rights Council in the Northern Capital says that any such change in the law will put at risk the survival of NGOs in the Russian Federation.
This proposal is only one now working its way through the Duma. Earlier this week, the Russian parliament passed on first reading a bill which would allow the authorities to label as a foreign agent any group or individual who had not registered with the state as such as a foreign agent, thus closing one legal loophole.
Up to now, some groups have sought to avoid that label by not registering with the government at all. One way that this new measure will affect Russian domestic affairs is this: Any media outlet which uses information from such groups will now have to identify them as foreign agents just as it already does registered groups with that status.
Given that some outlets will seek to avoid having to do so, that will likely mean that such groups often informal will find it far more difficult to place their stories – and that is likely exactly why the Russian powers that be are pushing for moving in this direction.