Russian prosecutors and tax inspectors raided anti-corruption and human rights watchdogs in the latest in a clampdown on foreign-funded charities and non-governmental organisations operating in the country.
Transparency International and Human Rights Watch had visits from tax police, while on Monday Amnesty International was also paid a visit. Human rights lawyers say that several hundred offices across the country have been raided in recent days.
“Four officials came, unannounced, and asked to look at documents relating to our finances, our history, the biographies of our founders,” said Rachel Denber of Human Rights Watch. She said that the men were very polite but stayed for over four hours and combed through reams of documents before taking away copies of many of them.
The raids come as part of a crackdown by Russian authorities on foreign-funded NGOs, which some in the Kremlin have insinuated are fomenting dissent in the country. Since the beginning of street protests against President Vladimir Putin in late 2011, when the then-Prime Minister accused protesters of being paid by the US State Department, there has been increased scrutiny of foreign organisations. Last year, a law was adopted requiring any NGOs receiving foreign funding to label themselves as “foreign agents” and in February Mr Putin instructed the FSB security service to closely monitor the work of foreign-backed NGOs.
“This is clearly meant to intimidate NGOs, demonise them, and ultimately close off scrutiny of Russia’s human rights record,” said Ms Denber.
“Our office has been open in Russia for 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like this.” So far there have been no actual charges or arrests, and it is unclear whether the move is merely an intimidation tactic or if it could lead to a real clampdown. Criticism has come from across Europe, with a spokesperson for the German foreign ministry warning of “a sustained effect on bilateral relations” and the EU’s High Representative, Baroness Ashton, calling the raids “deeply troubling”.
“Personally I think it’s a political mistake and harmful for the country to be carrying out checks on organisations who right now are carrying out real anti-corruption and human rights work,” wrote Elena Panfilova, head of the Russian office of Transparency International, on Facebook.