One of Russia's oldest and largest human rights movements knows that there is a price to pay for reporting torture in prison, as well as for condemning violations of civil and religious freedoms and other serious rights abuses. So far, it's $ 34,000.
Lev Ponomaryov says that his group for Human Rights has already had to pay around 1.2 million rubles ($ 17,000) in fines, and will have to collect a similar amount in the very near future, after a series of trials and Appeals in Russian courts.
"This is a new pressure tool," the former 78-year-old physicist told Al Jazeera. He founded the group in 1998, after serving two periods in the Soviet and Russian parliaments and a decade of coledear Memorial, another long-standing rights group.
The idea of an activist judiciary following the government's line to take strong measures against human rights defenders is not new, analysts say, and some of Ponomaryov's colleagues say the practice is as old as the Russian bureaucracy.
In an 1870 novel by Nikolay Saltykov-Shchedrin satirising the absurd, egocentric and illogical Russian officer of the time, the mayor of the fictional city of Glupov ("Stupidville,quot;) had a mantra. "I will not stand it! "He said," I will ruin you! "
"It seems that (the mayor) held a position in the (current) governmental hierarchy, responsible for non-governmental organizations," Alexander Cherkasov from Memorial told Al Jazeera.
Memorial has paid fines in recent months for 2.3 million rubles ($ 34,000), and is expected to have to pay another 1.7 million. rubles ($ 25,000).
& # 39; An effective tactic & # 39;
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 nonprofits have dissolved, closed or become informal groups, and hundreds of people across Russia have been sentenced to fines of up to $ 5,000 for participating in "unauthorized protests,quot; and other alleged transgressions, according to Statistics and media of the Ministry of Justice. reports.
The Russian Ministry of Justice declined to comment for this report if the financial pressure on NGOs and critics was a deliberate policy.
It has been considered that most of the NGOs that will be fined violate a 2012 law adopted by the Kremlin after a series of demonstrations, the largest in Russia's post-Soviet history, that protested against Vladimir Putin's third presidency.
"Those who oppose the law want to take power in Russia or get money from the West and want to abuse it," said analyst Sergey Markov, pro-Kremlin, in 2012.
The law says that groups that receive foreign funds, that is, Western funds, must be registered as "foreign agents," and their reluctance or lack of declaration on their websites and publications leads to lawsuits and fines.
"Suffocating them with fines is a fairly effective tactic. The weakest organizations will simply suffocate; the strongest will survive, but huge amounts of resources will be allocated to trials and fines," said Tanya Lokshina, from the Human Rights Watch office in Moscow. Jazeera
The authorities have other ways to bankrupt their critics.
Ludmila Kuzmina, who headed a branch of Golos, Russia's last independent electoral monitor, in the city of Samara, on the Volga River, took out a mortgage from his department to pay 2.5 million rubles ($ 37,000) for the alleged "evasion fiscal,quot;.
"Now the country can sleep well and never worry about its safety, the biggest criminal has been punished," he wrote sarcastically on Facebook in 2018. The 68-year-old woman was also forced to undergo a psychiatric evaluation and her passport was briefly confiscated . to prevent him from leaving Russia.
Attempts to re-enroll
The Ponomaryov Human Rights group worked with hundreds of activists and dozens of smaller groups throughout Russia.
The scope of their work reflects the magnitude of the Kremlin's repression against dissent: the group supported a wave of demonstrations against the recent opening of garbage dumps near residential areas, reported torture of adolescents accused of "extremism,quot; and condemned the ban. of opposition candidates from the municipal elections.
Ponomaryov also criticized the judgments that banned Jehovah's Witnesses and declared Hizb ut-Tahrir, a pan-Islamist organization advocating the creation of a Muslim caliphate ruled by Sharia, a "terrorist group."
In early November, the Supreme Court closed for Human Rights because "he could not register as a foreign agent."
On Saturday, Ponomaryov and his colleagues met to restore the group as a national movement that will join forces with like-minded civil groups.
"What is more important is that we will declare the creation of a civil coalition,quot; to unite the environmentalists, the parents of imprisoned opposition activists and the members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, Ponomaryov said.
Not only fines
Critics of the Kremlin have seen their share of pressure (arrests, searches, derogatory comments on national television, jokes of pro-government youth groups) and occasional contract killings.
The opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, threw cakes in his face and left toilet seats in the car. He was sprayed with liquid ammonia and finally shot in 2015.
Four years earlier, human rights activist Natalya Estemirova was shot dead after denouncing the atrocities committed by the Kremlin-backed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya.
After a picket on the famous Red Square in Moscow on the tenth anniversary of Estemirova's murder, Svetlana Gannushkina, a rights activist nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, received a fine of 150,000 rubles ($ 2,200).
"It was clear that I would have to pay, pay my lack of will to support the fact that the murder of a person dear to me is not being investigated, that we are still trying to get public attention, that they did not shut us up as the lambs that obediently go to the slaughterhouse, "Gannushkina wrote on Facebook.
The opposition leader, Aleksey Navalny, who angered the Kremlin with investigations into the assets and the luxurious lifestyle of the officials, was sprayed with an antiseptic that damaged his eye and was attacked by Cossacks, while his assistant was attacked. with a steel pipe and almost dead. Dozens of his supporters have been reviewed in their offices and homes.
His Fund to Fight Corruption group has also been hit with large fines.
In early November, a Moscow court ordered Navalny to pay 88 million rubles ($ 1.4 million) to Putin Yevgeny's ally Prigozhin for accusing his catering company of poisoning dozens of children in schools and kindergartens in Moscow. It is understood that Prigozhin owns a "trolls factory,quot; addressed to the US presidential elections in 2016 and, according to reports, runs a private military company operating 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 biggest fine in the history of Russian media," editor-in-chief Yevgeniya Albats said in a statement.
But a crowdfunding campaign helped raise 25 million rubles ($ 345,000) in a matter of days.
Fines for all
The "foreign agents,quot; law has proven so effective that the Kremlin has expanded its application.
On November 26, the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament, passed a bill that would allow authorities to label foreign media and individuals as "foreign agents."
It allows courts to issue fines of up to 5 million rubles ($ 75,000) for media, 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 who request 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 countrymen," they wrote. "(This) decreases your dignity."
However, on Monday, Putin signed the law.