MOSCOW, November 21 (Dan Peleschuk, RIA Novosti) – The Moscow headquarters of two influential human rights groups were vandalized on Wednesday, the first day a controversial new law on non-governmental organizations (NGO) took effect.
The entrances to the offices of Memorial and For Human Rights, two prominent civil rights groups headed by veteran activists, were spray-painted with the words “Foreign Agent,” along with a heart shape next to “USA,” according to photos posted on Memorial’s Facebook page.
A law that took effect on Wednesday requires Russian NGOs working in the political sphere and which receive financing from abroad to register as “foreign agents.” Critics have slammed the move as part of a wider Kremlin crackdown on dissent.
Lev Ponomaryov, head of For Human Rights, discovered the graffiti when he came to work on Wednesday morning, he told RIA Novosti.
He could not identify the culprits, he said.
“Another question is whether it was a team, or whether there was some kind of order from above,” Ponomaryov said.
Both Ponomaryov and other leading Russian activists have openly refused to register as foreign agents, despite receiving considerable financial support from the United States and other countries.
Meanwhile, pro-Kremlin group Young Guard, the ruling United Russia party’s youth wing, staged a protest on Wednesday morning outside the Moscow office of the US Russia Foundation (USRF), a donor fund that supports legal reform and institutional development in Russia.
The group plastered the office with a large sticker reading “Foreign Agent” and protested what they alleged in a press release were ties between the fund and the US State Department.
Maxim Rudnev, a senior Young Guard official, sought on Wednesday to hit back at criticism of the recent measures against Russian NGOs, commenting on Twitter that only those which were politically involved are targets.
“Only NGOs in the political sphere fall under the law on ‘foreign agents,’” he said. “NGOs in other spheres are not included.”
The implementation of the NGO law follows another piece of controversial legislation, signed into law last week by President Vladimir Putin, which broadens the definition of treason.
While lawmakers argue that the law is meant to strengthen state security, critics claim the move is an attempt to further stifle civil society. The bill targets those who offer consultation or financial services to individuals and organizations engaged in “activities directed against the security of Russia.”
Memorial board member Alexander Cherkasov told RIA Novosti earlier this month that the law is aimed at painting pro-democracy and human rights advocates as enemies of the state.
“We are not traitors to our country, but exactly the opposite,” he said. “We’re restoring its good name.”