BRUSSELS, July 26 (UPI) -- The European Union says it has questioned Russia over a new law that brands some non-governmental organizations working in the country as "foreign agents."
The European Union said Tuesday it brought up the NGO law and related measures enacted by Russian President Vladimir Putin last week during its semi-annual consultation with the Kremlin on human rights -- part of the European Union's efforts to strengthen democracy in Eastern Europe.
During the meeting, the two sides "focused in particular on the work of civil society in light of the recent legal developments in Russia affecting NGOs receiving foreign funding, tightening rules on freedom of assembly, reinstating slander as a criminal offense as well as the strengthening of the state control over the Internet," the EU statement said.
Non-government organizations engaged in political activity with foreign funding are classified as foreign agents under the bill approved by Russian lawmakers this month.
The bill's passage by the Russian Duma came amid criticism from human rights groups, the European Union, the United States and others who characterized it as a government attempt to suppress political opposition.
Under the legislation, NGOs would have to publish a report on their activities and conduct an annual financial audit. Penalties for not complying include a 4-year jail term and up to $9,200 in fines.
Organizations affected by the legislation would be added to foreign agent lists and required to include a "foreign agent" label on all materials they publish. Also, the NGO must tell the Justice Ministry about foreign funding greater than $7,000 it may receive.
Putin signed the bill into law Saturday, bringing immediate denunciations from human right activists.
Lev Ponomarev, head of the All-Russian Movement For Human Rights -- an affected NGO -- told the Voice of America his organization won't obey the new regulation.
"The adopted law is not legal," he said. "That is why of course, we, who call on the Russian citizens to defend their rights, we need to defend our rights as well, naturally using all legal means."
EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton expressed misgivings over the law's implications for human rights in Russia, calling it an unprecedented move.
"This bill cannot be compared to any legislation or practice existing in the EU or the U.S.," Ashton's office said in a July 10 statement. "The adoption of this NGO law comes amid several developments that limit the space for a vibrant civil society in Russia, such as the arrests of opposition figures as well as a new law that stipulates excessive fines for administrative violations during authorized demonstrations."
The EU-Russia human rights consultations have been ongoing since 2005 as part of a "partnership and cooperation agreement" with Russia and other former communist states that aim to strengthen their democracies through political dialogue.
As part of the process, the EU met representatives of Russian NGOs in Moscow and St. Petersburg in April and with international NGOs in Brussels last month.
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