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Russia bar on foreign NGOs

Moscow, Oct. 19: Russia yesterday suspended the activities of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the International Republican Institute and more than 90 other foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs), saying they failed to meet the registration requirements of a controversial new law designed to bring activists here under closer government scrutiny.

Across the country, foreign grass-roots organisations that investigate human rights abuses, promote democracy and work with refugees folded their tents until further notice, informing staff that all operations must cease immediately. The only work officially authorised was the paying of staff and bills.

The law, signed by President Vladimir Putin at the start of the year, drew broad criticism as part of a general roll back of democratic freedoms in Russia. Activists said it was intended to rein in one of the last areas of independent civic life in Moscow.

Putin called it necessary to prevent foreigners from interfering in the country’s political process.

Yesterday, officials said the suspensions resulted simply from the failure of private groups to meet the law’s requirements, not from a political decision on the part of the state. The groups would be allowed to resume work once their registrations are completed, they said.

“No political order has been given... to tighten the screws,” said Vladimir Lukin, Russia’s federal ombudsman, speaking at a Moscow forum hosted by the Council of Europe, a 46-country human rights organisation based in Strasbourg, France.

Many non-governmental organisations fear that the current bureaucratic tangle might be the beginning of a larger crackdown on activism that is not controlled by the Kremlin.

They note too that successful registration would not end their dealings with the justice ministry. After that, they would have to report on planned activities for the year, and they worry that officials could reject their plans or penalise the groups if they deviate from the plans because of unexpected events.

Many of the suspended organisations are American, including adoption agencies, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute.

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