Russian NGO registration transferred to Justice Ministry while Duma mulls shattering lawyer-client confidentiality

Publish date: May 20, 2008

ST.PETERSBURG – New cabinet reshuffles and government level streamlining under the administration of new Russian president Dmitry Medvedev will have implications for civil society and non-governmental organisations as their oversight body is returned to the Russian Justice Ministry.

A new bill is also under consideration that would require lawyers to submit to interrogation by government authorities about what they have been told in confidence by their clients, smashing the lawyer-client confidentiality that is enshrined in the Russian constitution and forcing defence counsel to essentially testify against their client.

Beginning October 1st 2008, the Federal Registration Service, which presides over the registration – and the closure – of non-governmental organizations, will be shifted back to its original home at the Ministry of Justice, where it is predicted the organization will enjoy even wider powers to deny NGOs official standing.

The Federal Registration Service was formed in response to a set of amendments in Russia’s federal law on non-governmental organizations, giving it sweeping and arbitrary powers over Russia’s nascent civil society movement.

“Within the higher echelons of power, a portfolio swap is simply taking place and behind all of this, the Federal Registration Service is an undefined structure. The activity of the service are geared toward interfering with and controlling NGOs, and it has been doing this with great success with only a handful of cases,” said Yury Vdovin of the prominent rights watch-dog Citizens’ Watch and the St. Petersburg Human Rights Council.

“The tendencies will hardly change – the authorities are not interested in strong and independent NGOs. I would be very happy to me mistaken,” he said.

The NGO law, passed in April of 2006, currently requires Russian NGO’s to submit reams of re-registration documents each year and to submit to so called spot checks throughout the year, were minor discrepancies or errors in reporting can paralyze NGOs and land them in lengthy court battles to seek reinstatement.

The law has been the target of vociferous criticism both in Russian and abroad by organisations and national governments that say the law is used as a cudgel to silence groups that are critical of the Kremlin. Last year alone, according to its own figures, the Federal Registration Service closed 11,000 organisations – an enormous blow considering that various estimates situate the number of NGOs currently operating in Russia to be about 150,000 to 300,000.

Bellona’s, St. Petersburg office, the Environmental Rights Centre Bellona, fell into the wheels of this bureaucracy lat year when registration authorities accused the organization of failing to pay advertising tax for listing the British and Dutch Consulates as sponsors of one of the organisation’s educational projects. Bellona objected to the findings in writing, but never got a response back from authorities.

Under the new cabinet and ministry shuffle – which leaves most of the familiar faces from the administration of former President now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in place – the government will have to formulate a corresponding normative base for regulating the Justice Ministry, and whether that will have a positive or negative impact on the future of NGO’s remains to be seen.

During the shuffle the Federal Registration Service has been given one more mandate – overseeing the activities of Russian lawyers. The mandate on the face is limited to compiling a roster of working lawyers in Russia and issuing them their credentials.

However there is far more at stake.

One of Putin’s last official acts in office was the bill he sent to the Duma called “On amendments to the law on lawyers’ activities and the legal profession in the Russian Federation.”

The suggested amendment almost completely contradicts legislation presently governing the legal profession in Russia. Current law indicates that the Russian Bar is a self-regulating society and that government encroachment in their activities is illegal.

The bill proposed by Putin would give authorities the right to interrogate a lawyer about information the lawyer has obtained from his or her client – shattering lawyer-client confidentiality. The Russian constitution enshrines that confidentiality, and further says lawyers cannot be interrogated about what they have been told by their clients.

If lawyers are forced to give information they have garnered in confidential conversations to authorities, they cannot defend them and will be forced to essentially testify against them. The new bill from Putin, the government would be able to sue a lawyer to produce information against his or her client.

What this will lead to and how it will affect the legislative process is not hard to guess.

The proposed bill has elicited outcry from activists, and the St.Petersburg Human Rights Council issued a statement.

"In the event that these amendments are made, a blow would first be dealt to lawyers’ confidentiality, one of the fundamental principles of the legal profession, and second, it would ruin the very idea of civil society as the existence of non-governmental organisations having the exclusive right to decide on whether these or those individuals can be their members," the council’s statement read, according to the Interfax Russian newswire.

Passage of the bill “would mean an attempt to put the defendants’ lawyers behavior under the bureaucracy’s control and an attempt to oust people undesirable to authorities from legal profession," the statement continued. "Do not let lawyers to become pawns in the hands of the executive authorities."

As one of the most important institutions of civil society, which acts independently of the government, the legal professions risks being put under control of the state, which inevitably leads to the destruction of the rights of a citizen to the defence guaranteed them by the Russia constitution.

Nina Popravko reported and wrote from St. Petersburg and Charles Digges contributed from Oslo.

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