On September 7, 2017, Russian authorities informed the Sova Center for Information and Analysis (SOVA Center), an NGO that conducts research and monitoring of hate crimes and extremist movements in Russia, that it was in violation of Russia’s law on “undesirable organization.” If convicted, the center and its staff could face fines, restrictions on activities, travel bans, or jail sentences of up to six years.
Founded in 2002 and based in Moscow, the SOVA Center conducts research and produces publications on a variety of human rights issues, including hate crimes, nationalism, xenophobia, and political radicalism. The center is widely considered a regional leader in researching hate crimes and extremist movements. The center has faced challenges from state authorities in the past in apparent retaliation for its human rights research; in December 2016, it was placed on Russia’s “foreign agent” list (see report).
On September 7, 2017, the SOVA Center’s director, Mr. Verkhovsky, along with a lawyer, appeared at the public prosecutor’s office to receive formal notice that the center was being charged with violation of Russia’s “undesirable organization” law (Article 20.33 of Russia’s Code of Administrative Offences). Passed in May 2015, the law provides Russia’s Prosecutor General and Foreign Ministry with the power to register foreign or international institutions as “undesirable organizations” if they present a “threat to the defensive capabilities or security of the state, to the public order, or to the health of the population.” Entities registered as “undesirable organizations” are banned from operating in Russia. Non-governmental organizations in Russia that work with or are supported by organizations classified as “undesirable” can be charged with violating the law. Since the law was passed, a growing number of foreign organizations that have been publicly critical of human rights conditions in Russia have been registered under this title.
The charges brought against the SOVA Center apparently relate to the “About Us” page on its website, where the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and Open Society Foundation (OSF), both registered by state authorities as “undesirable organizations,” were acknowledged for the support they have provided the center in the past. The webpage also provided hyperlinks to the two organizations’ websites. If convicted on one count of violating this law, the Centre could face a fine of up to 100,000 rubles (roughly US $1,730) with staff facing fines of up to 50,000 rubles (roughly US $865). If convicted on two counts of violating the law in one year, staff members could face additional fines, as well as restrictions on their activities, travel bans, or a jail sentence of up to six years. As of this report, the prosecution against the center is ongoing.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about apparent retaliation against an independent research center in response to its collaboration with and support from foreign entities. State authorities have a responsibility not to interfere with the peaceful exercise of the rights to academic freedom and freedom of association, so long as those activities are undertaken peacefully and responsibly. Actions aimed at limiting research and collaboration harm academic freedom and undermine society generally.