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European court rules Russia’s ‘foreign agent’ law violates rights

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The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled on Tuesday that Russia’s legislation on “foreign agents” violated the rights of the groups designated as such and ordered Russia to pay many of them compensation.

Russia uses the term “foreign agents,” which carries Cold War connotations of espionage, to label organizations and individuals it deems to be engaging in political activity with foreign support.

Foreign agents are required by law to label their publications with a lengthy disclaimer, regularly report on their income and spending and undergo financial audits.

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In its ruling in the case of seventy-three Russian groups designated as “foreign agents,” Europe’s top human rights court said the law violated freedom of assembly and association.

The court 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.”

Russian human rights groups Agora, one of the applicants in ECHR case, hailed the ruling as a “big victory.”

“The court fully agreed with the applicant organizations that the law on foreign agents is not only unpredictable, but it also hinders the legitimate work of civil society," Agora lawyer Kirill Koroteyev said.

The ruling comes a week after the lower house of Russia’s parliament gave initial approval to a bill further tightening the legislation at a time of heightened distrust of the West since Russia sent troops into Ukraine on February 24.

It also comes days after Russia passed a pair of bills ending the European Court of Human Rights’ jurisdiction in the country. It remains unclear how this new legislation will affect the implementation of the ruling on “foreign agents.”

Russia adopted its first law on “foreign agents” in 2012. It has since been expanded to include non-profit organizations, media outlets and individual Russian citizens including journalists and activists.

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