Da The Moscow Times del 20/10/2006
Originale su http://www.themoscowtimes.com/stories/2006/10/20/001.html

77 NGOs Forced to Suspend Activities

di Nabi Abdullaev, Anastasiya Lebedev

Seventy-seven foreign NGOs, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, were forced to suspend activity Thursday after a registration deadline elapsed.

The registration deadline was part of a controversial NGO law adopted earlier this year that provoked widespread criticism in the West even as Russian officials insisted it would not jeopardize the country's civil society.

But on Thursday some groups felt the heavy hand of the state, as they were forced to stop working temporarily.

"We have taken the precaution of suspending our activities in Moscow and the Northern Caucasus," Emma Bell, a spokeswoman for Medicins San Frontieres, said simply.

The organization, which provides humanitarians aid, saw its Belgian and French divisions forced to suspend activity; its Dutch arm registered successfully with officials.

Still, many groups that have been forced to suspend activity may soon be up and running.

The registration service will continue accepting registration documents, Vishnyakova said.

Complying with the new law, 185 organizations submitted registration applications to the Justice Ministry's Federal Registration Service by Wednesday.

Of those, 108 were granted registration. The remaining 77 are still being reviewed, said Natalya Vishnyakova, director of the ministry's Organization and Control Department.

NGO officials have been particularly concerned about a clause in the new law that gives the registration service the power to deny registration to those groups whose missions, in the eyes of state officials, conflicts with Russia's national interests and "morals."

Vishnyakova said those NGOs forced to suspend activity did so because they were late filing their paperwork.

While groups had six months to file their paperwork, 16 waited until the last day to do so, she said.

According to the registration web site, almost all groups that had to suspend activity also did not submit their paperwork until the final three weeks. By contrast, the vast majority of those groups that sent in their applications before then were successfully registered.

NGO officials countered they had to scramble to meet the deadline because the registration process was time-consuming and cumbersome.

As Rachel Denber, deputy director of the European and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, put it, the law "imposes undue bureaucratic and administrative obligations on organizations that make it more difficult for them to function and force them to divert their scarce resources to fulfilling new bureaucratic requirements."

But some NGO officials said that while the law's many provisions were difficult to navigate, the registration service staff was helpful.

"They even met with people after their working hours and during their lunch breaks," said a lawyer representing a U.S. and European NGO that had both been required to suspend their work.

The lawyer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said registration officials had called her seven times to make corrections or changes in her clients' documents.

Nina Osina, the financial director of Internews Russia, a media watchdog, said the law simply filters out those who do not keep their documents in order.

Osina noted that Internews Europe secured its registration with authorities within three days of applying.

The Danish Refugee Council managed to obtain its registration Thursday, Interfax reported.

But the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) were not so lucky. The groups landed on the registration service's waiting list.

NDI and IRI are closely linked, in the eyes of Russian officials, with the Rose Revolution that catapulted Mikheil Saakashvili to power in Georgia and the Orange Revolution that put Viktor Yushchenko in power in Ukraine.

Both groups also work closely with leading democratic figures in Belarus who would like to see Kremlin-backed President Alexander Lukashenko retired.

On Thursday, the law's effects could be felt at the offices of at least one international NGO, where a skeleton crew of three staff members processing salary checks was manning the fort.

"Usually, there's an endless amount of things to do," said a staff member, speaking anonymously because the law forbids him from speaking publicly while his group seeks registration. "If the registration takes two or three more weeks, it won't interrupt our work too much."

But some NGOs that are still waiting to obtain their registration said Thursday that they had continued working. Ivan Safranchuk of the Center of Defense Information, a U.S.-based think tank, said he had not been officially notified that he had to suspend work and his earlier registration had not been revoked.

Foreign NGOs have another deadline on the horizon. By Oct. 27, they must submit plans detailing what they would like to do next year.

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