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Duma Gives Nod to Tough NGO Bill

The State Duma easily approved in a first reading Wednesday a bill that would place nongovernmental organizations under strict state control and that foreign NGOs warned would shut them down.

"This bill will put an end to civil society in Russia," Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent Duma deputy, said during debate before the vote. "The Duma has neither the moral nor the constitutional right to vote in favor of it."

"The bill is aimed at shutting down organizations that don't share the government's or President Vladimir Putin's ideas," Communist Deputy Viktor Ilyukhin told reporters during a Duma recess.

United Russia Deputy Andrei Makarov, however, defended the legislation as a way to fight extremism and money laundering, and denied that it sought to clamp down on NGOs. "Many criminal organizations disguise themselves as NGOs or use the status of an NGO to launder dirty money," he said.

Pressed several times by reporters to offer an example of how criminals use NGOs as a cover, Makarov was unable to provide any examples.

Asked why deputies had not sought advice from NGOs in drafting the bill, Makarov said deputies had been working on the legislation for years. "We have carefully studied every single detail in that bill," he said.

Deputies from all four political parties represented in the Duma helped draft the bill, and the 450-seat chamber approved it in a 370-18 vote, with 48 abstentions.

All the abstentions were from Communist deputies, who criticized the version that had been submitted for the vote and promised to propose amendments before the second reading.

If the current bill is passed into law, the country's 450,000 NGOs will be forced to reregister with the Justice Ministry's Federal Registration Service under tighter rules next year. The agency would also have to check that NGOs did not use foreign grants to finance political activities.

Under the bill, which has to go through two more readings, registration officials would supervise the financial flows and taxes of NGOs and determine whether their activities were in accordance to the law and to the NGOs' declared goals.

"We know how easy it would be for the tax police and fire inspectors to find something wrong and shut down unwanted organizations," Ryzhkov, the independent deputy, said during the debate.

He said the bill violated the Constitution, which states that people have the right to freedom of assembly and association. "Why do you want to pass a bill all human rights organizations oppose?" he said.

The bill would also bar foreign NGOs from having representative offices or branches in Russia and restrict Russian NGOs' ability to accept foreign cash or employ non-Russian workers.

People convicted of crimes and companies suspected of money laundering or assisting terrorists would be prohibited from financing NGOs -- a provision that would shut down Open Russia, whose founder, oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is serving an eight-year sentence on politically tinged charges of fraud and tax evasion.

NGOs could be denied registration if the documents they provide contain false information, or if their name "offends the morality, national or other feeling of citizens," the bill says.

Nikolai Duckworth, the director of Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia program, said that if the bill became law, it would lead to the closure of foreign NGOs.

"As such, it would have a chilling effect on the right to freedom association and expression in Russia," he said in a statement. "It is unfortunately all too easy to imagine how the increased powers of scrutiny could be abused."

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said the legislation would "eviscerate" civil society in Russia. "The express purpose of this law is to emasculate the NGO community," said Holly Cartner, Human Rights Watch's regional director.

Government officials have repeatedly accused Western countries of helping bankroll Ukraine's Orange Revolution last year and Georgia's Rose Revolution in 2003 through NGOs, and the Kremlin is worried that Duma elections in 2007 and the presidential vote in 2008 could spark a similar popular uprising.

Putin told a meeting of human rights activists last summer that the Kremlin would not tolerate the use of foreign money in political activities.

In a response to a vote in the U.S. Congress earlier this month to allocate $4 million for the development of political parties in Russia, the Duma voted on Friday to allocate $17.4 million to promote civil society in Russia and in the former Soviet Baltic countries.

During Wednesday's Duma debate, Alexei Ostrovsky, a member of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party and a co-author of the bill, heaped scorn on NGOs and accused the CIA, the U.S. intelligence agency, of fomenting uprisings.

"We remember how those human rights organizations defended human rights in Yugoslavia, Ukraine and Georgia under the cover of the CIA, and we know how it ended," he said.

Source: The Moscow Times

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