“We actually thought we had ‘cleaned up’ our website and got rid of those ‘junk’ hyperlinks, but we missed one,” Anya Sarang told me, laughing sadly. Sarang heads the Andrei Rylkov Foundation, a leading Russian group that works to advance responsible drug policy. This week, a Moscow court fined the group 50,000 rubles ($862) for its involvement in an “undesirable organization”. The charges stem from a 2011 hyperlink on the group’s website to a posting on the Open Society Foundations (OSF) website, which Russian authorities banned two years ago.
Russia’s 2015 law on “undesirable organizations” authorizes the attorney general’s office to banish from the country any foreign or international organization that it believes undermines the country’s security, defense or constitutional order. OSF is one of 11 organizations, primarily US donor institutions and capacity building groups, already blacklisted.
Once designated “undesirable”, an organization can no longer carry out any activity in Russia. Additionally, the law provides administrative and criminal penalties for groups and Russian citizens who cooperate with “undesirables” — administrative fines for the first two violations, then a maximum prison term of six years.
The law prohibits Russian groups or individuals from accepting funding from “undesirables”, but does not otherwise specify what cooperation with an undesirable organization may entail. Russian activists and lawyers have thought of many things that could be eligible – from attending events organized by “undesirables” to distributing their documents.
But the idea that a hyperlink on your website could be considered an “implication” never occurred to anyone – until it started to happen. The Andrei Rylkov Foundation now finds itself in the same basket as three other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and two academic institutions fined for “unwanted” hyperlinks on their websites earlier this year. The prosecutor’s office also went after the SOVA Center, a Moscow-based think tank well known for its research on nationalism, religious freedoms, political radicalism and counter-extremism. Their case is still pending.
“On the evening of October 8, a courier from the prosecutor’s office came to us with a letter regarding an alleged violation [of the law on “undesirable organisations”], which would have to do with our internet activity,” Sarang said. “They wanted to talk to me the very next day, but I was on a trip, so I called them and they said it was ‘unwanted’ hyperlinks. Our team scoured the website for links to ‘unwanted organizations’ – they found and disabled a few, but missed this one. And it’s no wonder… It’s a link in one of our articles published since 2011 to a study on health risks in pre-trial detention, by the OFS health program.
Over the next few days, while Sarang was still out of town, a policeman made several visits to the organization’s office and the home of its co-founder. He was looking for Sarang and emphasizing that prosecutors needed to talk to him as soon as possible. Repeated visits and calls from the prosecutor’s office seriously disrupted the group’s work.
Sarang’s colleagues went to the prosecutor’s office without waiting for his return and told officials that their website had no links to “undesirable organization” sites. However, officials managed to find this single, deeply buried ancient link. The prosecutor’s office sent the case back to trial and the court’s decision came a month later, on November 13.
The Andrey Rylkov Foundation will appeal the decision, but the outlook is not encouraging, as several other groups have already lost their appeals under similar circumstances. “And after?” Sarang wonders, “Will the government, for example, sue me for retweeting a tweet from another Twitter aficionado who happens to work for one of these ‘undesirable organizations’?” That sounds absurd, doesn’t it? But these days, nothing seems absurd for the Kremlin in its relentless struggle to stifle independent voices.