One of Russia’s oldest and largest human rights movements knows there is a price to pay for reporting prison torture, as well as for condemning violations of civil and religious freedoms and other grave rights abuses. So far, it is $34,000.
Lev Ponomaryov says his For Human Rights group has already had to pay out about 1.2 million rubles ($17,000) in fines – and will have to raise a similar amount in the very near future, after a series of trials and appeals in Russian courts.
“This is a new tool of pressure,” the 78-year-old former physicist told Al Jazeera. He founded the group in 1998, after serving two terms in Soviet and Russian parliaments and a decade of coleading Memorial, another long-standing rights group.
The idea of an activist judiciary following the government line to crack down on rights campaigners is not new, say analysts, and some of Ponomaryov’s colleagues say the practice is as old as Russia’s bureaucracy.
In an 1870 novel by Nikolay Saltykov-Shchedrin satirising the absurd, self-centred and illogical Russian officialdom of the time, the mayor of the fictional city of Glupov [“Stupidville”] had a mantra. “I won’t stand it!,” he would say, “I will ruin you!”
“It seems like [the mayor] occupied a position in [today’s] government hierarchy, responsible for non-governmental organisations,” Memorial’s Alexander Cherkasov told Al Jazeera.
Memorial has in recent months paid 2.3 million rubles ($34,000) in fines, and is expected to have to cough up another 1.7 million rubles ($25,000).
Fines have long been part of the Kremlin’s political toolbox, but only in recent years have they become a tool to silence dissidents through bankruptcy.
Dozens of non-profits have been dissolved, closed down or become informal groups, and hundreds of people throughout Russia have been sentenced to fines of up to $5,000 for participating in “unsanctioned protests” and other alleged transgressions, according to Justice Ministry statistics and media reports.
Russia’s Justice Ministry refused to comment for this report on whether financial pressure on NGOs and critics was a deliberate policy.
Most of the NGOs to be fined have been deemed in contravention of a 2012 law adopted by the Kremlin after a series of rallies – the largest in Russia’s post-Soviet history – protested against Vladimir Putin’s third presidency.
“Those who stand against the law either want to seize power in Russia or get Western money and want to misuse it,” pro-Kremlin analyst Sergey Markov said in 2012.
The law says groups which receive foreign funding – that is, Western-funding – must be registered as “foreign agents”, and their reluctance or failure to declare this on their websites and publications leads to trials and fines.
“Stifling [them] with fines is a pretty effective tactic. Weaker organisations will simply suffocate; stronger ones will survive, but enormous amounts of resources will be allocated to trials and fines,” Tanya Lokshina of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch told Al Jazeera.
The authorities have other ways to bankrupt their critics.
Ludmila Kuzmina, who headed a branch of Golos, Russia’s last independent election monitor, in the Volga River city of Samara, took out a mortgage on her apartment to pay 2.5 million rubles ($37,000) for alleged “tax evasion”.
“Now the motherland can sleep tight and never worry about its safety – the biggest criminal has been punished,” the 68-year-old wrote sarcastically on Facebook in 2018. She was also forced to undergo a psychiatric evaluation and had her passport briefly seized to prevent her from leaving Russia.
Ponomaryov’s For Human Rights group worked with hundreds of activists and dozens of smaller groups throughout Russia.
The scope of its work reflects the scale of the Kremlin’s crackdown on dissent – the group supported a wave of rallies against the recent opening of rubbish landfill sites near residential areas, reported on the torture of teenagers accused of “extremism”, and condemned the barring of opposition candidates from municipal elections.
Ponomaryov also blasted court rulings that outlawed Jehovah’s Witnesses and declared Hizb ut-Tahrir, a pan-Islamist organisation that advocates for the creation of a Sharia-ruled Muslim caliphate, a “terrorist group”.
In early November, the Supreme Court shut down For Human Rights because it “failed to register as a foreign agent”.
On Saturday, Ponomaryov and his colleagues gathered to re-establish the group as a nationwide movement that will join forces with like-minded civil groups.
“What’s more important is we will declare the creation of a civil coalition” to unite environmentalists, the parents of jailed opposition activists and members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, Ponomaryov said.
Kremlin critics have seen their share of pressure – arrests, searches, derogatory comments on national television, pranks by pro-government youth groups – and occasional contract-style killings.
Four years earlier, rights activist Natalya Estemirova was shot dead after reporting the atrocities committed by Kremlin-backed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya.
After a picket on Moscow’s famed Red Square on the 10th anniversary of Estemirova’s killing, Svetlana Gannushkina, a Nobel Peace Prize-nominated rights activist, was fined 150,000 rubles ($2,200).
“It was clear that I would have to pay, pay for my unwillingness to put up with the fact that the killing of a person dear to me is not being investigated, that we are still trying to draw public attention to it, that they did not make us silent as the lambs that obediently go to the slaughterhouse,” Gannushkina wrote on Facebook.
Opposition leader Aleksey Navalny, who angered the Kremlin with investigations into the assets and luxurious lifestyle of officials, was doused with an antiseptic that damaged his eye and was assaulted by Cossacks, while his aide was attacked with a steel pipe and nearly killed. Dozens of his supporters have had their offices and homes searched.
His Fund to Fight Corruption group has also been hit with huge fines.
In early November, a Moscow court ordered Navalny to pay 88 million rubles ($1.4m) to Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin for accusing his catering company of poisoning dozens of children in Moscow schools and kindergartens. Prigozhin is understood to own a “troll factory” that targeted the US 2016 presidential election and reportedly runs a private military company that operates in Syria, Ukraine and the Central African Republic.
The previous record fine was set in 2018, when The New Times magazine was forced to pay 22.25 million rubles ($332,000). It was “the largest fine in history of Russian media”, its editor-in-chief Yevgeniya Albats said in a statement.
But a crowdfunding campaign helped collect 25 million rubles ($345,000) within days.
The “foreign agents” law has proven to be so effective that the Kremlin has expanded its application.
On November 26, the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament, approved a bill that would let authorities label foreign media outlets and individuals “foreign agents”.
It empowers courts to issue fines of up to 5 million rubles ($75,000) for media outlets, and up to 100,000 rubles ($1,500) for individuals – covering almost anyone who earns money from a foreign source, from YouTube vloggers to freelancers filing for foreign media.
Dozens of intellectuals and public figures, including writers, rock stars and scientists, signed an open letter to President Putin on Wednesday urging him not to sign the law.
“The label of a foreign agent discredits a person in the eyes of his compatriots,” they wrote. “[It] diminishes their dignity.”
However, on Monday, Putin signed the bill into law.