The metropolitan department of the Ministry of Justice sent a lawsuit to the Moscow City Court demanding the liquidation of the Sova information and analytical center (previously recognized as a foreign agent). Founded more than twenty years ago, the NGO has been studying the problems of nationalism and xenophobia and has received grants from the President of the Russian Federation more than once. The reason for the lawsuit was the events in a number of subjects, despite the fact that Owl is registered in Moscow as a regional organization, the NGO specified. The lawyer speaks about the formal correctness of the Ministry of Justice and points out that earlier only one NGO was liquidated for such a violation – the Moscow Helsinki Group, the oldest human rights group in Russia and the USSR.
The Moscow City Court reported on the receipt of a lawsuit by the Moscow Department of the Ministry of Justice demanding the liquidation of Sova. From the base of the court it follows that the claim was registered on March 17; date of the meeting has not been set. In the Ministry of Justice, “Kommersant” only spoke about “repeated violations of the law” as the reason for going to court, without specifying the details.
Information and analytical center “Sova” was founded in 2002 by employees of the Moscow Helsinki Group (liquidated by the court) and the information and research center “Panorama”. Registered in Moscow as a regional public organization. Explores the manifestations of xenophobia and extremism, the relationship between religion and society and the observance of human rights in the Russian Federation. Received the support of the German and Dutch Foreign Ministries, foreign funds (including until 2012 the National Endowment for Democracy – recognized in the Russian Federation as an undesirable organization).
Until 2016, SOVA was repeatedly a recipient of grants from the President of the Russian Federation (including through the Institute for Civil Society Problems). But in 2016, the information and analytical center was recognized as a foreign agent. The head of the Owl, Alexander Verkhovsky, has been a member of the Presidential Council for Human Rights since 2012, but in November 2022 he was expelled from this body.
“The lawsuit was the result of an unscheduled inspection by the Ministry of Justice at the request of the prosecutor’s office. In the inspection act, 24 events outside the native region, including international conferences, appear as violations,” said Mr. Verkhovsky.
It should be noted that back in September 2022, the Veterans of Russia movement asked to liquidate Sova. After that, according to Mr. Verkhovsky, the Ministry of Justice began checking. He also links the interest in Sova with criticism of the “illegal application of anti-extremist legislation.” The latest report of the center, in particular, notes that criminal prosecution for radical statements in 2022 remained approximately at the same level as a year earlier, but in 2023, experts expect an increase in sentencing in cases of extremism. Sova intends to challenge the position of the Ministry of Justice in court.
In January 2023, at the suit of the Ministry of Justice, the Moscow City Court liquidated the oldest human rights organization in Russia, the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG, which had been operating since 1976). The basis for the claim was the activities of the MHG outside Moscow. The Ministry of Justice insisted that the group should not take part in conferences in other regions of the country. Mr. Verkhovsky draws attention to the similarity of the arguments in the claims.
“I don’t understand the rule that a regional organization operates in a region, an interregional organization in several, and an all-Russian organization in Russia. This requirement has always been in the legislation, but it did not mean that a person from a Moscow NGO could not take a step outside the Moscow Ring Road, ”he argues.
Yagupov & Partners lawyer Yegor Filin believes that there is no direct ban on the activities of NGOs outside the region of registration – organizations can create representative offices and branches on the territory of the Russian Federation in any subject. However, in Art. 14 of the Law of the Russian Federation “On Public Associations” mentions a “regional public association”: its activities, according to the charter, are carried out “within the territory of one subject”. Elena Mende, lawyer of the Anatoly Sobchak Baltic Bar Association, says that the systematic, that is, more than two times, holding events in other regions can be regarded as “the organization’s activities that are contrary to the statutory goals,” which allows the Ministry of Justice to go to court with a lawsuit to liquidate an NGO in the basis of Art. 61 of the Civil Code of the Russian Federation. But the lawyer draws attention to the position of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation: “The formality and apparent straightforwardness of this approach should not detract from the principle of proportionality, according to which the forced liquidation of a legal entity is an extreme measure of responsibility. The court must assess the significance of the violations and their consequences, as well as the possibility of eliminating the association without liquidating it.”
Almost half of Russian NGOs announced a reduction in funding in 2022
“The activities of NGOs were not previously restricted depending on the subject of actual work,” Mr. Filin clarifies. “Legislation is changing, but it seems to me that the situation here is not so much legal as political and legal.” Ms. Mende calls the liquidation of the MHG the only case known to her. Mr. Filin notes that in 2022 the Ministry of Justice became more active “in matters of control and supervision over the activities of human rights organizations and foundations”, linking this with “changes in public relations within the country” and “the emergence of new unspoken rules.”