The Russian Justice Ministry accused an election watchdog of failing to register as a “foreign agent” on Tuesday, alleging the group still receives funding from abroad.
Golos, a nongovernmental organization that monitors Russian elections, is the first group to face charges under a new law that requires Russian groups that get foreign funding to register as “foreign agents” or risk fines, restrictions on public protest and imprisonment.
In a statement on its website, the Justice Ministry said Tuesday that it had filed charges against Golos, alleging that the group must register because it is involved in Russian politics and receives foreign funds. Violating the law could bring fines of up to $16,000 for the organization and $9,500 for its director, according to the Associated Press.
Golos received USAID grants before the American aid agency was ousted from the country last year. The Russian group denied getting money from abroad since the law had gone into effect and said it would fight the accusations in court, the Russian state news agency reported.
The accusation against Golos follows a massive wave of government inspections of nonprofit foundations, human rights groups and other groups that alarmed many activists inside and outside Russia. The U.S.-based nonprofit Freedom House called the sweeping inspections “a witch hunt” aimed at distorting and discrediting the work of such groups.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin has been touring Germany and the Netherlands this week, he has been dogged by protesters and needled over the state inspections. German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Putin on Monday that such groups needed to be able to work without fear.
Putin dismissed the concerns Monday, saying the inspections were not aimed at shutting down NGOs, but at controlling “financial flows from abroad” channeled into Russian political activity, according to the state news agency.
Golos was outspoken in its criticism of Russian elections last March that returned Putin to the presidency. Deputy executive director Grigory Melkonyants told the Los Angeles Times that “massive serious violations” plagued that vote.
After parliamentary elections in December 2011, Melkonyants said Golos knew of thousands of cases of campaign violations to boost the ruling United Russia party. Mass protests erupted in Russia over alleged election fraud; Putin accused the U.S. of inciting those demonstrations.
The independent group has been accused in the past of trying to defame United Russia and was fined roughly $1,000 for alleged elections law violations in December 2011. The case centered on an online map where Internet users could report alleged irregularities at the polls.
The same day that the Justice Ministry announced the “foreign agent” charges, Golos posted the text of a scathing Guardian editorial on its website. Putin’s reaction to a changing Russia, the Guardian wrote, “is to go after the very people who remind him how unpopular he is.”
The case is scheduled to go to court Wednesday, according to the Justice Ministry statement.