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Russia's new 'undesirables' law draws Western ire

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(MOSCOW) - The European Union joined the United States on Sunday in condemning a Russian crackdown on "undesirable" NGOs, calling it a "worrying step" that would stifle free speech.

Under the law signed by President Vladimir Putin on Saturday evening, Russian prosecutors will be able to target foreign groups whose "undesirable activities" are deemed to threaten "state security" or the "basic values of the Russian state."

Such groups and their publications risk being banned in Russia, having their bank accounts blocked and violators face fines or prison terms of up to six years.

People cooperating with such entities would also be hit with fines and could be banned from entry to Russia, according to the text, which sailed through the two chambers of Russia's parliament.

The EU called the law a "worrying step in a series of restrictions on civil society, independent media and political opposition" in Russia.

"It will restrict freedom of speech and media as well as pluralism of opinion," a spokesperson for the EU's foreign service said in a statement

US State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said the law illustrated the creeping restrictions on criticism of the Kremlin.

"We are concerned this new power will further restrict the work of civil society in Russia and is a further example of the Russian government's growing crackdown on independent voices and intentional steps to isolate the Russian people from the world," she said in a statement.

"Russians, like people everywhere, deserve a government that supports an open marketplace of ideas, transparent and accountable governance, equal treatment under the law and the ability to exercise their rights without fear of retribution."

- 'Lowering the curtain' -

The "undesirables" law builds upon existing legislation branding groups with foreign funding as "foreign agents," passed shortly after Putin began his third historic term in the Kremlin in 2012, despite massive protests.

Russian officials have accused NATO of trying to undermine the country and views internal criticism as the work of spies and traitors.

The Kremlin's sensitivity to reproval has been accentuated by the West's isolation of Russia -- and levying of sanctions on the country -- over its Crimea annexation and alleged military backing for insurgents in eastern Ukraine.

Critics say the vague wording of the new legislation, and a process that bypasses the court system, means that any group or business could be targeted.

Veteran rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva said groups like New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) and London-based Amnesty International, which have a sizeable Russian presence and regularly issue damning statements on rights violations, would probably be worst affected.

In a joint statement last week Amnesty and HRW blasted the law as "the latest chapter in a crackdown" on NGOs and free speech in the country, where Putin's ratings soared after the Crimea annexation and remain above 80 percent a year later, despite a raft of economic woes.

"This law is another step toward lowering the curtain between our country and the West," Alexeyeva told Interfax news agency.

Britain's Minister for Europe David Lidington said the law was "yet another example of the Russian authorities' harassment of NGOS."

"The new law will directly affect the ability of international organisations to work, promote and protect human rights in Russia and is clearly aimed at undermining the work of Russian civil society," Lidington said in a statement urging the Kremlin "not to interfere in the valuable work of NGOs".


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