A Russian court has handed down $13,000 worth of fines against the election monitor Golos, in the first ruling under a new "foreign agent" law that observers say will lead to the closure of many organisations across the country.
The move on Thursday comes amid mounting criticism from activists that Moscow is cracking down on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) with repressive laws and a wave of raids on their offices by prosecutors.
Golos, which monitors elections for violations, and its director Liliya Shibanova, were ordered to pay the fine by Moscow's Presnensky district court for failing to register itself as a "foreign agent" as required by new legislation.
The organisation denied the label applied to them and said it would appeal against the ruling.
The Russian parliament last year passed a law obliging all NGOs who receive money from abroad and engage in political activity to register as foreign agents, in a move activists slammed as a throwback to Soviet times.
Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, denied he was persecuting NGOs during his annual televised question-and-answer session on Thursday.
"Let them say, where they got the money, how much money, and how they spent it! What's wrong with that? In the United States such law has been working since 1938," he said.
'Derogatory and misleading'
The court based its ruling against Golos on information that it had received money as part of a human rights prize from Norway.
But the group tried to prove in court that they refused to take the money, part of the Andrei Sakharov Freedom prize.
"Golos told the Norway Helsinki Committee that it was unable to receive the monetary award precisely because of the 'foreign agent' law," said Ramil Akhmetgaliyev, a lawyer who represented the group in court.
The money was returned, and the Norwegian group apologised for their mistake, he added in a statement sent out by the Agora association of lawyers.
But the judge ruled that Golos was acting as a "foreign agent" without declaring itself as such, and sentenced it to a fine of $10,000.
The group's director Lilya Shibanova was also fined $3,000 in a separate hearing.
Golos, which trains citizens to be vote monitors at elections, irritated the authorities by alleging wide-scale abuses in the 2011 parliamentary elections and 2012 presidential polls won by Putin, handing him an historic third term.
The claims of vote-rigging sparked the first mass protests against Putin's domination of Russian politics.
Other Russian NGOs who have watched the case against Golos are now expecting a similar wave of hearings.
"We are deeply angered and expect it to get worse, that it will be used against dozens of other organisations," said Arseny Roginsky, chairman of the Memorial rights group, which also received warnings from prosecutors after a
wide wave of searches in NGO offices started last month.
Russian activists have said the label "foreign agent" is derogatory and misleading, and that the law describes political activity in a way that can be applied to NGOs in any field, including environment, education and health.