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Hefty Fine On Russia-based Film Festival For Not Registering As 'Foreign Agent'

The Russian government on Thursday imposed hefty fine on a civil society organization in the country for violating the controversial "foreign agent" law.

The St. Petersburg-based film festival "Bok o Bok" ("Side by Side"), which seeks to create a space where lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people can openly express their identity, was issued with an unprecedentedly heavy combined fine of RUB500,000 (over $15,500).

The fine was based on two purported separate offenses: its failure to register as a "foreign agent" and the failure to indicate that it is a "foreign agent" in a publication it has recently produced, as is required by the relevant law. A case has been registered against its leader that may also result in a high fine.

This is the fourth non-governmental organization (NGO) to be fined since April last, after a repressive new "foreign agents' law" came into effect, placing broad new restrictions on the work of civil society organizations.

Amnesty International described the action as "further evidence of the Russian government's determination to curtail the freedom of association and free speech in the country."

"The survival of many civil society organizations in Russia is at stake and, with them, that of freedoms of association and expression in the country," said John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Program Director at Amnesty International.

Last July, President Vladimir Putin approved the so-called "foreign agents law" which came into effect in November 2012. It requires any NGO receiving foreign funding to register as an "organization performing the functions of a foreign agent" if it engages in what it defines very loosely as "political activity."

The Russian government says the law is meant to increase transparency and accountability of civil society organizations in the country, even though strong regulations in that area already existed.

"One of the reasons advanced for the Foreign Agents Law was the need to ensure transparency in the NGO sector. Ironically, but unsurprisingly, NGOs pushing for greater accountability on the part of the authorities, have been among the first to targeted," said Dalhuisen.

Since the law was enacted, independent civil society organizations across Russia have been subjected to pressure, intimidation, harassment and smear campaigns by the authorities.

Courts in Russia have already issued orders to four NGOs and two of their leaders imposing hefty fines for failing to register as "organizations performing the functions of foreign agents." Two more NGOs will be standing trial in court on the same grounds in the coming days, and so will likely the director of "Bok o Bok", Amnesty says.

Offices of hundreds of NGOs - including Amnesty International's Moscow office - have been "inspected" by representatives of the prosecution, tax authorities and other government agencies.

A further 15 groups have received official orders from the prosecutor's office to "eliminate" their respective purported violations of the law - which involves similarly registering as "foreign agents" - within a month, or face legal consequences.

Furthermore, at least 39 other NGOs have been officially warned by the prosecutor's office that they will be violating the law if they receive foreign funding and engage in political activities but fail to register as "foreign agents."

Meanwhile, U.N. human rights experts have voiced grave concern over the charging of two Russian NGOs that gave evidence to the U.N. Committee against Torture.

The Anti-Discrimination Center Memorial in St. Petersburg and the Public Verdict Foundation in Moscow were charged in April and May respectively with allegedly violating legislation under which non-profit organizations involved in political activity must register as "foreign agents" if they receive money from abroad.

Committee against Torture chairperson Claudio Grossman and the its Rapporteur on Reprisals George Tugushi said they had been informed that extracts from the groups' submissions to the Committee last November had been cited as a basis for the charges.

They have written to the Russian Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Alexey Borodavkin, seeking urgent clarification and reassurances that Memorial, Public Verdict and other NGOs will not face any reprisals "as a result of their legitimate activities, including providing information to the Committee against Torture".

The experts reminded the Russian authorities that reprisals would contravene the Convention against Torture, to which Russia is a party.

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