European Court Rules Russia's Foreign Agents Law Violates Human Rights

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that Russia's foreign agents law violates the rights of the groups and individuals designated as foreign agents and ordered Russia to issue compensation.

Russian authorities have used the controversial foreign agents law to quash opposition to President Vladimir Putin by cracking down on NGOs, media outlets, and individuals that the government designated as foreign agents.

In a case filed by 73 Russian groups and in some cases the directors of the groups, the ECHR ruled unanimously on June 14 that the law violated the European Convention on Human Rights by denying them freedom of assembly and association.

Russia’s foreign agents law was adopted in 2012 and has been modified repeatedly since to include nonprofit organizations, media outlets, journalists, and activists.

It has been used it to label organizations and individuals it deems to be engaging in political activity using foreign financial support. The designation requires the groups to label their publications with a lengthy disclaimer and subjects them to a costly and burdensome regime of reporting their income and spending.

The 73 plaintiffs in the case include groups involved in civil-society issues, human rights, environmental protection, cultural heritage, education, and migration.

Their complaints, filed to the court between 2013 and 2018, denounced the auditing and bureaucratic requirements they were subjected to after being deemed foreign agents, the limits on their public gatherings and other activities, and heavy fines.

They alleged an infringement of their freedoms of expression and of assembly and association, both of which are guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as discrimination because of their political views.

The ECHR judges upheld the claims, saying "the interference with the applicant organizations' rights had been neither prescribed by law nor 'necessary in a democratic society.'"

The court found that the classification of organizations as engaging in “political activity” and receiving “foreign funding” had been based on an overly broad and unforeseeable interpretation of those terms.

It said the use of political activity as a criterion to designate groups as foreign agents produced "incoherent results and engendered uncertainty among NGOs wishing to engage in civil society activities relating to, in particular, human rights or the protection of the environment or charity work."

The court also ordered Russia to pay the applicants a total of 1.02 million euros ($1.1 million) in damages as well as 119,000 euros for costs and expenses.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the ruling because parliament had ended the ECHR’s jurisdiction in Russia in a measure passed last week.

The measure says Russia will not carry out rulings issued after March 15, the day Moscow said it would pull out of the Council of Europe after pressure mounted for Moscow to be expelled.

"Russia no longer implements these decisions," Peskov told reporters.

The ruling comes a week after the lower house of Russia's parliament gave initial approval to a bill further tightening the foreign agent legislation.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP