MOSCOW/SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday dismissed criticism of state inspections of non-governmental organizations, saying the office searches that have prompted charges of harassment and caused concern in the West are routine.
Rights activists say a wave of inspections at hundreds of NGO offices in recent weeks are aimed at scaring them into registering as "foreign agents" and silencing criticism of Putin, a former KGB spy now in his third term at the Kremlin.
"These are routine measures linked to the desire of the law enforcement agencies to bring the activities of organizations in line with the law," Putin told Russia's human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin, who raised concern over the checks.
"Everybody should align their activities to correspond to Russia law," Putin said at the meeting while journalists were present, adding that law enforcement officials should not be overzealous in the checks.
"There should be no excesses," he said.
Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Memorial, Russia's oldest rights group, are among those whose offices have been visited by prosecutors and other state officials, prompting criticism from the United States and the European Union.
Several prominent NGO leaders said on Thursday that they would continue refusing to comply with a law signed by Putin last year that obliges groups that get foreign funding and are deemed involved in political activity to register as "foreign agents", a term that evokes images of Cold War espionage and anti-government conspiracy.
The U.S. State Department said it was "deeply concerned" about the inspections, saying they were also being conducted at religious and educational groups that Washington believed were not subject to the new laws.
"The sheer scope of these inspections ... really gives us concern that this is some kind of a witch-hunt," department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington.
Penalties for failing to comply with the new rules governing NGOs include six months' suspension without a court order and, for individuals, up to three years in jail.
"None of us has registered, we haven't because one shouldn't lie and we are not foreign agents," said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, 85, a veteran rights defender and doyenne of the Soviet dissident movement in the 1960s. The offices of her organization, the Moscow Helsinki Group, were inspected on Thursday.
"We will not bow to this pressure," said Alexeyeva.
She said on Ekho Mosvky radio that some of the officers had acted "impudently" and that they had demanded documents the group had already submitted.
European Union Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton on Tuesday described what she called the "raids" on NGOs as part of a trend that was deeply troubling.
The Russian Prosecutors General's office said in a statement on Thursday that it was coordinating the work of "specialists from various regulatory and supervisory bodies" to ensure NGOs were broadly working in compliance with the law.
Moscow has said the new law governing NGOs is needed to prevent espionage and political meddling by foreign governments, which Putin has accused of using civic groups to spy on Russia and weaken its government.
But leading rights groups say the law is vaguely worded to allow arbitrary application to political ends and have boycotted it, leaving blank a list of NGOs currently registered as foreign agents on the Russian Justice Ministry's website.
Most of the NGOs targeted say they are not involved in politics and are acting in Russia's interests, not against them.
"We consider this law illegal and vile," Memorial board member Sergei Krivenko said on Thursday. "We will use all the legal tools to fight against it in courts."
Pavel Chikov, head of rights group Agora, which also does not intend to register, said Russian NGOs received 19 billion roubles ($610 million) in 2011.
He said he expected that the inspections would end soon and that the state would begin trying to force groups deemed involved in political activity to register as "foreign agents" later this year.
Additional reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Steve Gutterman, Michael Roddy and Paul Simao