By Jackie Hansen, Major Campaigner and Women’s Rights Campaigner
Basic freedoms are under threat in Russia. Restrictive new laws are making it difficult for NGOs to carry out their work. Our Sochi Winter Olympics campaign, which runs until the end of January, is helping to shine a light on the threats to human rights being faced each and every day by people throughout Russia. The article below is written by one of Amnesty International’s partner organizations in Russia, and details how laws limiting freedom of expression, association, and assembly are impacting their lifesaving work.
Want to learn more about how you can make a difference? Check out our Russia webpage for more information about our Sochi Winter Olympics campaign. And please sign our online petition calling on Russia to respect freedoms of expression, association, and assembly.
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Valentina Cherevatenko is the head of a Russian non-governmental organization (NGO) which is being sued under the so-called “foreign agents law”. The law, enacted by the Russian authorities late last year, requires any NGO receiving foreign funding and engaging in what it defines very loosely as “political activity” to register as an “organization performing the functions of a foreign agent”. Here is her commentary on the law and its impact in Russia.
Earlier this year we celebrated the 20th anniversary of our NGO – the Union of Women of the Don, named after the mighty river Don which flows near our city Novocherkassk, in southern Russia’s Rostov region.
For 20 years we have focused on the promotion of human rights and peace through non-violent means. It came as a shock to us when in March this year our offices were raided by a host of authorities – the prosecution office, the tax office, the police, the security services, the fire brigade and the financial auditors. Ostensibly, they wanted to check on our activities in connection with the “foreign agents law.”
We have never kept our activities secret – we have helped thousands of people who can testify to this.
Our NGO has lawyers, human rights defenders and psychologists on hand to advise people from around the region on a range of issues affecting their everyday lives – family, labour, housing, pensions. More than 12,000 people have visited our surgeries.
More than 7,000 people – military and civilians, teachers and students; members of parliament and local administrations, journalists and police from all over Russia have taken part in our projects. In the last two decades, we have dealt with violence against women, gender discrimination, peace and cooperation between different peoples, cooperation with law enforcement and human rights.
Over time we have grown, and now we are one of the biggest and most influential NGOs in the Rostov Region. The Union of the Women on the Don includes eight groups and more than 60 activists in different cities across the region.
We have been providing material and psychological support to people who became destitute and homeless as a result of flooding in the town of Krymsk, which was completely submerged under water in July last year. With the help of 250 volunteers, soon after the flooding, we sent trucks with clothes, drinking water, hygiene materials and food. We organized a seminar to educate teachers from the town on how to counsel the victims of flooding.
Since last December we have been working on a project to promote dialogue and tolerance between different sectors of society. In this dialogue we want to promote different voices on the most important issues of our everyday life and we want this to be done in a civilized, tolerant manner. We want people to learn to respect different points of view.
So, are we really foreign agents? Who are we working for if not for our own people? How can our activities be viewed as “political”?
Russian law does not define what constitutes “political activity”. This has given the authorities free rein to prosecute NGOs on a whim!
In the last eight months following the March raid on our organization we have spent hours and hours trying to prove that our only aim is to help ordinary people in their everyday lives – is this a political ambition? Maybe this should be the ambition of all politicians.
The Union of Women of the Don have nothing to be ashamed of and we have nothing to feel guilty for. We are proud of our work. That’s why, at a meeting of the organization we decided that we cannot and should not label ourselves as “foreign agents”.
The courts threw out all of the administrative charges against us. However, we are being sued now for refusing to register as “foreign agents”.
What will become of us, I don’t know. I don’t know what will happen to me, because my work is my life.
I know that everyday people who we have helped are phoning us to offer support.
The closure of our organization will affect so many people. It will be really awful if the authorities try to make us close down our organization by making life impossible.