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European court rules against Russia's foreign agent law

June 14, 2022

Russia uses the "foreign agent" label to mark NGOs and news outlets which receive funding and support from abroad. But activists say the law is routinely used to silence opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

This photo shows an exterior view of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg
The court in Strasbourg imposed a fine, though Russia already dismissed the verdictImage: Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on Tuesday said a law that allows Russian authorities to crack down on NGOs, media outlets, and others — by designating them "foreign agents" — violates its human rights convention.

Russia uses the term to label organizations that it claims are engaged in political activity with foreign support.

What the court said

The ECHR said the law violated freedom of assembly and association, as part of the European Convention on Human Rights, in the case of 73 groups designated as foreign agents.

The court said the use of "political activity" as a criterion to designate groups "produced incoherent results and engendered uncertainty among NGOs wishing to engage in civil society activities relating to, in particular, human rights or the protection of the environment or charity work."

The NGOs in question filed their complaints to the court between 2013 and 2018. They complained of heavy-handed auditing and bureaucratic requirements after being deemed foreign agents because they received funding from abroad.

The judges in Strasbourg upheld the claims, saying "the interference with the applicant organizations' rights had been neither prescribed by law nor 'necessary in a democratic society.'"

They ordered Russia to pay the applicants a total of €1.02 million ($1.1 million) in damages, plus €119,000 for costs and expenses.

Ekaterina Kotrikadze on Conflict Zone

Russia dismisses verdict

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said he would not comment on the court's ruling, adding that the Russian parliament had signed off on legislation ending the ECHR's jurisdiction last week.

"Russia no longer implements these decisions," Peskov told reporters.

However, the Russian human rights groups Agora, which was one of the applicants in the case, hailed the ruling as a "big victory."

"The court fully agreed with the applicant organizations that the law on foreign agents is not only unpredictable but also hinders the legitimate work of civil society," Agora lawyer Kirill Koroteyev said.

What is the foreign agent law?

The designation meant the organizations had limits placed on their public gatherings and other activities. They could also be subject to hefty fines for failing to identify itself as foreign agents.

Russia's foreign agent law dates back to 2012 when it originally applied to non-governmental organizations receiving funds and grants from abroad.

In December 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed new legislation that expanded the legal definition of who can be considered a foreign agent.

The law now includes any private individual or group who receives any amount of foreign funding, whether from foreign governments, organizations or even citizens, and publishes "printed, audio, audio visual or other reports and materials."

Russia adds Deutsche Welle to 'foreign agent' list

Affected individuals or organizations are required to label anything they publish  — including social media posts  — with a 24-word disclaimer indicating their status as a foreign agent.

They are also required to file regular financial statements and reports on their activities every six months with the government, and undergo annual audits.

The term "foreign agent" carries negative Soviet-era connotations in Russia, suggestive of spying. It was used by the Soviets for political dissidents.

Critics say Russian authorities use the legislation to crack down on organizations and people that are critical of the Kremlin.

The Kremlin has denied the foreign agent legislation amounts to censorship and President Putin has said the law is needed to protect Russia from foreign meddling.

Russia no longer to be party to convention

Although Moscow had long been a signatory to the 1953 convention, it was excluded from the Council of Europe last March. That decision followed Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

As a result, Russia will cease to be so-called "contracting party" to the convention in September.

That means Russian citizens will no longer be able to lodge cases alleging government rights abuses with the ECHR.

rc/dj (AFP, Reuters)