January 27, 2006

NGOs say Russian spy claim is Soviet-style smear

By Oliver Bullough

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian human rights groups said on
Friday Kremlin allegations that they are funded by British
spies revived painful memories of Soviet-era smear campaigns.

In a joint statement, they said the charges by the FSB
state security service were utterly false. One activist whose
group was named as having accepted money from British agents
threatened to sue state television for airing the allegations.

According to the TV program, aired on Sunday, British spies
communicated with agents via a fake rock, housing sophisticated
technology, and channeled funds to Russian non-governmental
organizations (NGOs) for unknown nefarious purposes.

"We deeply regret that such statements are possible today,
15 years after the fall of the Soviet regime in our country,"
said the statement, signed by 85 rights activists from dozens
of organizations, including some singled out in the program.

"This has reminded many people of the system of
denunciation and slander in the shamefully well-known years of
mass repression in the USSR."

The allegations came days after the final approval of tough
new legal curbs on NGOs, that will allow security and tax
organs more oversight while restricting financing from abroad.

President Vladimir Putin, who signed the new curbs into law
on January 10, has said the spying scandal has justified the
new legislation on NGOs that FSB officials say could be fronts
for subversive action.

Putin, himself a former KGB agent, says he has not yet
decided whether to expel four British Embassy employees named
in the affair and officials are yet to propose taking action
against the named NGOs.

Many observers have said the scandal, which Britain has
expressed surprise over, was tailored by Russian authorities to
silence Western critics of the law.

"It does not surprise me that the FSB should invent such an
insinuation. I have a very low opinion of this organization and
have previously suggested that they could do this," said
Ludmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, which was
specifically accused of taking money from British spies.

"But it is upsetting and shameful that this provocative act
could have been conducted by the hands of journalists," she
told Ekho Moskvy radio.

She said activists from a number of organizations would
meet on Monday to discuss a joint approach, but said she was
already considering legal action.

"There are very well known and highly qualified lawyers
that are prepared to conduct this legal process, if we decide
to appeal to court," she said.