Under new laws, Russia's non-governmental organizations are increasingly coming under pressure. Courts are being used as the government's instrument of choice. For NGOs in Russia, it's a fight for survival.
In a courtroom at the District Court of Moscow hands are cupped to ears. Faces strain to read lips and bodies lean forward. With a little luck, those in the audience could almost make out what was happening in the trial against "Golos," Russia's independent election monitoring watchdog - if only the judge would speak up.
Golos faced charges that it had violated a new Russian law requiring "politically active" NGOs receiving international funding to register as "foreign agents."
Golos is at the fore of a group of organizations rejecting that term, arguing that Russia now equates "foreign agents" with espionage. Prosecutors targeted Golos for receiving $10,000 (7,600 euros) when the organization was awarded the Norwegian Helsinki Committee's prestigious Andrei Sakharov Freedom Prize last fall.
The election monitoring organization had in fact declined the prize money. After the Norwegians mistakenly transferred the cash prize, anyway, Golo returned the funds in full. Nor had Golos accepted any outside funding since the foreign agent law went into effect.
But the judge found the organization guilty as charged.
As word spread around the courtroom of a $10,000 fine, Golos Director Lilya Shibanova shook her head and sighed. She described why she thought Golos' situation was difficult.
"If we refuse to register as foreign agents, the penalty doubles," she told DW. "And if we fail to pay that penalty, we'll be forced to stop our activities, and a criminal case will be launched against me personally."
Shibanova added that Golos intended to appeal the court's decision, but with little hope. "You see how things went here. Our only recourse may be to liquidate the organization," the director said.
Gunar Ekelove-Slydal, deputy director of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee that awarded Golos the Sakharov prize, was among those who criticized the verdict.
"It's obvious the judge is not taking decisions on the merits of the case. Because listening to the arguments, it's very clear that even according to current Russian law, Golos has not done anything wrong," he said.
The committee member also found it "not acceptable, in Europe or any other place, to punish civil society organizations for doing what they should do - scrutinize elections and other governmental policies. That's their job."
Ekelov-Slydal believes the verdict will have far-reaching implications. "This might be the beginning of a very hard time for civil society organizations," he said. "And it will hurt the image of Russia as a country that wants to go in a democratic direction."
In the year since Vladimir Putin's return to the Russian presidency, his government has cracked down on civil society in a way that is "unprecedented" in the country's post-Soviet history, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
Golos' current troubles have their roots in Russia's parliamentary elections in December 2011. Funded at the time by American, European and some Russian donors, Golos promoted fair elections by training citizen volunteers to serve as monitors. Many ended up documenting election fraud, casting a shadow over an otherwise dominant victory by Vladimir Putin's ruling United Russia party. Tens of thousands took to the streets to protest what they saw as deeply flawed results.
Since then, Putin's government has introduced a range of measures aimed at restoring order - or, "tightening the screws," as some Russians call it. Several opposition figures currently face indictments and possible prison sentences. New laws now restrict the freedom of assembly.
NGOs also face increased pressure, accused of promoting Western interests with the aim of destabilizing the government. State media, in particular, have suggested that the US specifically is playing a sinister role in this effort. In the past few weeks, government agents have inspected hundreds of NGOs across the country in search of hidden links to America.
The Center for the Support of Public Initiatives, a small think-tank just a few hours outside of Moscow in the city of Kostroma, is among those now in the government's crosshairs.
The organization was targeted for inviting an American diplomat to take part in a public, roundtable discussion on US-Russian relations, says the Center's Nikolai Sorokin. Now, the Kostroma Center - like Golos - faces charges that it violated the "foreign agent" law. The organization will soon head to court in hopes of avoiding crippling fines that may close its doors for good.
"We don't know how the court case will go, but the damage is already done to our organization and its reputation," Nikolai Sorokin told DW. "For the third week in a row, this case is all we've been working on. And meanwhile, all those associated with our organization - participants, journalists, businesses - are facing unprecedented police pressure."
Sorkin added that the proescutor isn't limiting his investigation to their organization alone. "All this tells me that it's a campaign of intimidation," he said.
Oleg Orlov at Memorial, a human rights organization, is also being challenged over the "foreign agents" law. Orlov says recent events remind him of old Soviet practices he witnessed, whereby courts were used for show trials to discredit critics of state power. He is worried that the result might be the end of election monitoring, protest meetings and checks on the power of the authorities.
"It's a message to all those people in society who actively protested after those outrageous election violations," he told DW. "It says, 'It happened to Golos, and you could be next.'"
In his recent annual marathon press conference in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin noted that he welcomed the work of NGOs in Russia, saying they provided him with information over abuses in Russia. But the Russian leader rejected the notion that the "foreign agents" law and other measures were overly burdensome - or that they harkened back to Russia's darker Soviet past.
"Russia has nothing in common with the repressions and gulags of the past, and I hope we never will again," Putin said. "Our society is different now, and we would never allow such a thing. But this doesn't mean that we shouldn't have order and discipline. It doesn't mean that all citizens shouldn't stand equal before the law."
That assertion will be put to the test as more Russian NGOs challenge the "foreign agents" law in court in the coming weeks. Should they find their fates similar to that of Golos, many have indicated they'll appeal to the European Court of Human Rights for final review.