Council of Europe tells Putin of concern over Russian NGO law

SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - The head of the Council of Europe told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday he was concerned a law requiring non-governmental organizations which received funding from abroad to register as foreign agents could have a “chilling effect”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during a joint news conference with South African President Jacob Zuma (not pictured) after their meeting at the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Krasnodar region, Russia, May 16, 2013. REUTERS/Maxim Shipenkov/Pool

Prosecutors have conducted a wave of inspections at the offices of all kinds of NGOs in Russia this year citing the law which critics say is part of a campaign to smother dissent against Putin during his third term as president.

It requires NGOs who receive finding from abroad to register as “foreign agents” if they are involved in political activity.

Russia’s only independent pollster, Levada Center, said on Monday its future was in doubt after prosecutors warned it was in violation of the law.

Comments by Thorbjorn Jagland, secretary-general of the Council of Europe, suggested he shared the concerns of groups which say they are being penalized even though they are not involved in politics, and also about the use of the term foreign agent which critics say evokes Soviet-era spy hunts.

The Council of Europe is made up of 47 countries, including Russia, and sets out to promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

“I have expressed concerns about this (law), and I think it is very important ... how political activity is being defined,” Jagland said at a joint news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

“I have said to my counterparts that I am very concerned with (the term) foreign agent because it is very sensitive wording,” said Jagland, who also met Putin.

“And it can have a chilling effect on the NGO community, particularly if this law is not being put into practice in the right manner.”

Many prominent NGOs have refused to register as foreign agents.

Last month, a Moscow court fined independent vote monitoring group Golos, which said it had detected fraud in recent parliamentary and presidential elections, for failing to register as a foreign agent.

Levada Center said on Monday it might have to close after prosecutors said they determined it was engaged in political activity and threatened to take it to court if it failed to register.

Putin, a longtime Soviet KGB officer who has frequently accused the West of meddling in Russian politics, has called the NGO inspections “routine” and said the law was needed to ensure the state and public know where the groups get their money from.

The U.S. State Department said in March the new law might be akin to a ‘witch hunt’. Washington led other Western countries at the United Nations last month demanding it be rescinded.

The European Union also cited the law in a statement on Sunday in which it criticized Russia’s human rights record.

Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Jon Hemming