Russian activists pledge to defy 'foreign agent' law

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Russian rights groups pledged Tuesday to boycott a new rule forcing top NGOs to carry a "foreign agent" tag, on the eve of the implementation of the law which has become a symbol of President Vladimir Putin's opposition crackdown.

Following unprecedented protests against his decade-long rule, Putin in July signed off on a law that requires non-governmental organisations who receive foreign funding to register with the authorities as "foreign agents."

The legislation, which takes effect on Wednesday, has caused huge concern among Russian NGOs that say the law will stigmatise them in the eyes of everyday Russians.

On Tuesday, several top Russian NGOs said they would not comply with the law, while others indicated they were gearing up for a battle of attrition against the Russian government and pledged to fight the measure in courts.

"We are not going to register as foreign agents, it would be false information because we are not foreign agents," said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the 85-year-old leader of the Moscow Helsinki Group.

"I do not know a single rights organisation which would register as a foreign agent."

"They want to destroy us but we are getting ready to survive," she told AFP.

Arseny Roginsky, head of Memorial, another top rights group, said his organisation would fight the measure in court.

"Non-governmental organisations are not launching a special protest campaign yet they firmly believe that this law cannot function because it's unlawful and immoral," he told AFP.

"We will defend our position at all levels of the court system."

Natalia Dzyadko, deputy director at the Moscow Centre for Prison Reform, Russia's top prisoner support group, also said her organisation would not comply with the law despite receiving foreign grants, even though it did not have the money to pay heavy fines.

"This is so absurd," she told AFP. "This law has been hanging over our heads for half a year now but we are still having a hard time believing in its existence. We will not be part of this idiocy."

Rights groups say they are forced to accept foreign funding because Russian businesses are too scared to help them.

The label "foreign agent" does not directly implicate the NGO in espionage but does carry in Russian unequivocally negative connotations of unpatriotic behaviour.

Amnesty International on Tuesday urged the Russian government to jettison the measure, saying it would "stunt the development of civil society."

Mikhail Fedotov, chairman of the Kremlin's Civil Society and Human Rights Council, also said the law was in conflict with the country's civil legislation and should be dropped.

"It is not innocuous -- bad laws cannot function well," he told AFP.

Pavel Chikov, head of human rights group Agora, said his organisation would represent activists' interests by taking on the justice ministry, if necessary.

"We are ready and up in arms. We are ready to fight dozens of cases at a time," Chikov told AFP.

Supporters of the law say it is aimed at preventing foreign states from influencing Russia's domestic politics, claiming it emulates US legislation on foreign-funded NGOs.

"(To hold) a dialogue with society with a mask on one's face is unacceptable," Irina Yarovaya, a ruling United Russia lawmaker and co-author of the law, said in a statement, adding from Wednesday all non-governmental organisations would become accountable to society.

Observers say the law is a response to the criticism by NGO election watchdogs of December parliamentary polls and the March presidential elections won by Putin.

Lilia Shibanova, head of independent election watchdog Golos, conceded the refusal to comply with the law may force the vote monitor to shut down but pledged her group would fight tooth and nail to survive.

"If they have questions for us, we'll meet them in court," she told AFP. "War is war."