03/29/2013, 00.00
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Russian NGOs raided. The U.S. concerned about "witch hunt"

by Nina Achmatova
About 2 thousand organizations inspected over last month, to monitor compliance with the new law that imposes "foreign agents" label on bodies that receive foreign funding. Organizations that operate in the capital, such as Catholic church and youth groups, also affected.

Moscow (AsiaNews) - Washington has expressed concern about the possibility that the flurry of searches carried out in recent weeks in the offices of several NGOs in Russia can become a "witch hunt." "The United States is deeply concerned about the unprecedented wave of controls on non-governmental organizations and civil society groups scattered throughout Russia," State Department spokesman, Victoria Nuland, said in a briefing quoted by Ria Novosti. The operation - she said - "appears to be aimed at undermining civil society" " in Russia. In recent days, Nuland reported,'' the U.S. ambassador to the Federation, Michael McFaul, met with officials in Moscow to present Washington's point of view on the matter.

In the last month, the tax authorities and the Ministry of Justice controls were carried out in around 2 thousand NGOs throughout Russia. Many activists have condemned the tight inspections conducted without notice, calling them "an instrument of intimidation."

The initiative is linked to a new law - signed last year by President Vladimir Putin, after months of unprecedented street protests - which increases control over NGOs, forced to register as a "foreign agents" if they receive funding from abroad and are involved in "political activities."

The European Union has joined the chorus of international criticism.  But the Kremlin has responded that it is "routine inspections," while the attorney general's office said that the purpose is solely to combat illegal financing and extremism. But the State Department notes that not only NGOs are being targeted, but also the civil society organizations such as religious institutions and schools, that "raises concerns for some kind of witch hunt." "Everyone must align their activities to the Russian legislation," Putin stated, promising to avoid "excesses" during inspections.

Groups which for decades have defended human rights in Russia - such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Helsinki and Memorial Groups - are among those to have been raided as well as even simple organizations working in the capital - like a Catholic church in the southern region of Rostov , a youth group called Akva, in the port city of Novorossiysk, and a charitable organization for AIDS patients in the region of Bashkortostan.

The veteran Russian activist, Lev Ponomarev, 71, leader of the movement "For Human Rights" explained that many NGOs have refused to register as foreign agents, because it is a label that, in a country still immersed in the Soviet past, would discredit their work. In his view, also, the new law makes it impossible to receive funds from abroad but also poses difficulties for funding from Russia. For those who break the rules the penalty is four to 20 years in prison.


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