Russian President Vladimir Putin has called for amendments to a controversial bill that would force non-governmental organizations (NGOs) funded from abroad and engaged in political activity to declare themselves “foreign agents."
“If we see today that these projects must be brushed up, I’m ready to ask lawmakers to introduce relevant amendments,” Putin said on Tuesday at a meeting on the pending legislation.
Putin urged the government “not to procrastinate until fall” with discussing the amendments.
Under the new bill, which was approved by the State Duma in its first reading on Friday, NGOs would have to publish a biannual report of their activities and carry out an annual financial audit. Failure to comply with the law could result in four-year jail sentences and/or fines of up to 300,000 rubles ($9,200).
Those engaged in political activity and funded from abroad will be labeled “foreign agents,” a term synonymous with spying and treason in the Soviet era, which has already met fierce criticism from human rights groups.
In an apparent move to soften the upcoming restrictions on NGOs, Putin proposed to boost state funding of non-governmental organizations to three billion rubles ($10 million) from one billion rubles ($3 million).
“If we introduce tougher conditions for the organizations’ activity, we must increase our own funding from the federal budget no less than three times, from one to three billion rubles ,” the president said.
He also warned against restricting religious organizations under the new law, in a move that might make life easier for Russian Orthodox Church, a pillar of Russia's establishment.
The country’s oldest rights organization, the Moscow Helsinki Group, has said it will close down its offices rather than comply with the new law in its existing form. Russia’s Public Chamber also said last week that it would not support the bill - which has also been criticized by the Kremlin’s own rights council - in its current form.
The bill was proposed by United Russia lawmaker Alexander Sidyakin, the author of recent legislation that sharply increased fines for violations of regulations governing protests.
Speaking about a bill criminalizing libel that was introduced in the State Duma by a group of the United Russia lawmakers last week, Putin said that the article should return to the Criminal Code but without custodial sentences for offences.
“We will keep it in the Criminal Code, but will ask lawmakers to withdraw imprisonment as the liability for this offense,” Putin said.
The libel bill in its current format envisages jail terms of up to five years and fines of up to 100,000 rubles ($3,000) for misinformation damaging a person's reputation.
Russia’s Human Rights Council advocates, Mikhail Fedotov and Vladimir Lukin, who also attended the meeting criticized re-criminalizing libel as it would spoil Russia’s image.
“We may become the only European country that made this step backwards. It’s harmful for our international image,” Fedotov said.
“If we set responsibility without imprisonment, it would be right,” Lukin said, adding that “a word should counter a word, but not jail.”
Putin will submit his proposals voiced at the meeting to the State Duma later on Tuesday, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.