MOSCOW, January 17 (RIA Novosti)
Justice Minister Plans No Action Against NGOs
The Justice Ministry has not yet acted on the law on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with regard to the so-called foreign agent provision, Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov as good as admitted while speaking in the State Duma on Wednesday. In this case, foreign agents are NGOs that are non-profit voluntary organizations funded from abroad and engaged in political activity.
The ministry, he said, has no right to force any organization to register. He let slip, however, that given a different interpretation of the law, everything could be different. He also intimated that the current law has yet to be challenged in court.
In the two months since the law on “foreign agents” was enacted, only one organization, Shchit I Mech (Shield and Sword) from Chuvashia, has stepped forward to register.
During the government hour on Wednesday, Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov explained that the law was not being acted upon and that no other organization had registered.
The latest episode began with United Russia deputy Mikhail Markelov asking the minister about the status of the “foreign agents” law, and whether the ministry had had any problems or if anyone was burdening it with registrations. Konovalov unexpectedly replied that what the law-makers could do was to alter the precept of the law to make it more binding, thus giving the ministry the right to check NGOs.
The Duma was taken aback failing to understand whether the minister was joking or actually suggesting that adjustments were desirable. Konovalov continued in the same vein saying that “NGOs must declare their status voluntarily.”
Later it became clear that the minister was distancing himself from the scandalous initiative advanced by United Russia. He said that his ministry was unable to identify foreign aid itself and would have to use information from fiscal control bodies and investigative agencies.
Konovalov called into question the second criterion for classifying NGOs as “foreign agents” – their political activity. He predicted: “As far as political activity is concerned, I have to say that there will be further disputes and discussions that will lead all the way up to the Constitutional Court.” He added that his ministry would follow the court’s ruling.
Opposition deputies interviewed by Nezavisimaya Gazeta also came to the conclusion that the ministry, far from demanding additional authority, was refusing to exercise the existing mandate. Vadim Solovyov, head of the Communist Party’s legal service, did not rule out the possibility that the Ministry of Justice has no intention of prosecuting. Solovyov suggested that United Russia had most likely failed to grasp the changes at the top. He said a change in Kremlin policy became clear after Vladimir Putin not only preserved the presidential Human Rights Council but also expanded it.
A Just Russia deputy Dmitry Gudkov was even more straightforward. He told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that Konovalov “simply has no desire to enforce this law.”
Russians Support Closing Offensive Websites
Most Russians are happy with how the law on shutting down websites with prohibited content is being enforced. People seem to value order over freedom.
According to a recent survey by the research company FOM, 54 percent of Russians (77 percent of active Internet users) know about the recently introduced registry of domains that contain prohibited information. Most respondents said they approve of the new rules: 43 percent of respondents and 44 percent of active Internet users believe it acceptable to block access to “certain content” before a trial. Another 23 percent (29 percent of Internet users) believe offending websites should be shut down by court order, while only 14 percent (15 percent) said they were against any kind of censorship.
According to the law protecting children from harmful content, effective on November 1, sites containing child pornography and information about how to commit suicide or how to produce drugs are put on a blacklist and closed without due process. The FOM survey revealed that 41 percent of Internet users are willing to complain to the telecom and IT watchdog if they see prohibited content.
“The public always supports those protecting integrity and order,” FOM president Alexander Oslon said. He believes it would be strange to protest against the new restrictions; those who say that the new blacklist “limits their freedom” are unlikely to rally much support, at least while the restrictions remain reasonable.
The survey canvassed 1,500 people in 43 Russian regions.
“Russians appear to value order more than freedom, which suggests they will continue supporting various restrictions on the Internet,” said Dr. Alexander Demidov from the Higher School of Economics’ Sociology Department. He also draws a clear line between TV-viewers (70 percent of Russians) and Internet users (30 percent). “Until their numbers become balanced, only the latter group will continue protesting against censorship online,” he added.
Social media monitoring by Wobot showed that the recent shutdown of popular resources such as Lurkmore, Librusec and Rutracker mostly sparked censure on social networks. At the same time, according to Demidov’s own research, 70 percent of Russians support censorship online, while in Eastern Europe, only 25 percent-30 percent think it’s acceptable.
Meanwhile, the Duma council, responsible for setting the Russian legislative agenda, will meet today to consider introducing fines of up to 200,000 rubles (about $6,500) for publishing media products containing obscene language. The lower house may discuss the relevant amendments to the Administrative Offences Code as soon as Friday, although the initiative has not been supported by the government.
An official response from Government Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov says the Code already includes an article on spreading information that may harm children, which certainly covers obscenities, while the proposed amendments would make officials choose arbitrarily which clause to apply in a specific case.
United Russia Deputy Sergei Zheleznyak, who sponsored the move, confirmed that the amendments will be brought before parliament. “The legal suggestions, which are technical rather than material, can be taken into account on the second reading,” he said.
Moscow City Court Defines Low Cost Oil Deal as Theft
Purchasing any goods for a price lower than the average market value can be defined as misappropriation, the Moscow City Court ruled in a second case involving Yukos.
Yesterday the Moscow City Court published its findings in last month’s ruling as it considered the appeal from Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev in a second Yukos case. Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were convicted of tax evasion in the first trial. The court rejected the defense’s argument that there was no actual crime. According to the investigation, Yukos top management was stealing oil from its subsidiaries. The defense argued that the oil was bought at a price higher than its production cost and that therefore there was no uncompensated appropriation. In clarifying its ruling in this case, the Moscow City Court explained that “uncompensated” means “without equivalent compensation,” that is, the market value.
“The pricing policy exercised by the defendants in purchasing oil from Samaraneftegaz, Yuganskneftegaz and Tomskneft-BNK was analyzed and found to reveal that the prices were many times lower than the market value and that the payments hardly covered production costs,” the judgment says.
Igor Pastukhov from the law firm YUST recalled that the Supreme Court of the USSR defined theft as the replacement of an appropriated object with an object of lesser value. In today’s market economy this approach could suggest greater liability for businesses.
In considering the Oboronservis case, where the prosecution claimed that property was sold at a price below market value, a trend is becoming clear. In a similar action against Russneft, traders were allegedly buying oil from subsidiaries at production cost to resell at market prices. Russneft owner Mikhail Gutseriyev was charged with tax evasion and operating an illegal enterprise. The case was later dismissed.
Platon Lebedev’s former lawyer Konstantin Rivkin believes the Moscow City Court misinterpreted the 2008 Supreme Court ruling. The court defined appropriation of property and its replacement of property of lesser value as theft. Rivkin refers to a ruling by the Constitutional Court that stipulates that the parties in a civil transaction are free to agree on a price. Any other assumption is a misinterpretation.
A lower than market value purchase price can only be defined as theft if the buyer deliberately misleads the seller about the quality and characteristics of the substitute, Roman Teryokhin from the law firm Nalogovik says.
The Yukos case created a precedent in Russian law that could lead to unexpected consequences. If the term ‘equivalent price’ is legally recognized, we might end up with a random law enforcement officer deciding on the valid price for goods.
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