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New Russian law halts work of many foreign rights units

MOSCOW -- Russia brushed aside US objections yesterday and forced nearly 100 foreign non-governmental organizations, including leading human rights groups, to suspend operations for missing a deadline for reregistration under a tough new law.

Those who had to stop work included Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which have been persistent critics of President Vladimir Putin, and some accused the authorities of deliberately keeping them in legal limbo.

Kim Reed, an NGO lawyer who is advising several foreign groups, said that the Federal Registration Service was creating constant delays by insisting on minor changes to documents that the head offices had to prepare from scratch.

``It appears that if you are an organization involved in human rights or democracy activities, then your application gets much harsher scrutiny. Even if you are not sending police and court bailiffs to shut down their office, by not registering them, you are effectively doing that," she said.

Alexander Petrov, deputy head of the Moscow office of U S -based Human Rights Watch, said the group had to stop its research work yesterday, including interviewing rights victims, as well as participation in public events.

He said the organization hoped to resume its activities as soon as possible, but faced a bureaucratic deadline of the end of October to submit plans for 2007.

Putin, who has warned against foreign-financed groups interfering in domestic politics, has been accused of backsliding on democracy and freedom of the press since he took office.

Western governments have expressed strong concern about the law -- which imposed strict limits on all NGOs but especially Russian ones -- seen as likely to curtail civil freedoms. The State Department on Wednesday urged Russia to speed up the reregistration process and to allow all NGOs to continue operating.

But Justice Ministry official Anatoly Panchenko said authorities were unable to process the registrations of 96 NGOs by the midnight Wednesday deadline, although he promised they would do so as soon as possible.

``We will do our best to process them as quickly as possible so they can resume their work," he said.

He was later quoted by the ITAR-Tass news agency as saying that the number of pending applications had fallen to 93. The Danish Refugee Council, an aid group active in Chechnya that has had uneasy relations with the Russian government, said it was told that its permit would be issued today.

However, medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, said it had to halt some of its humanitarian work in Chechnya and a program in Moscow involving homeless children.

The law obliged foreign-based groups to complete the procedure by the deadline or suspend their activities.

The European Union said it had ``repeatedly expressed concern" about the NGO law since its adoption in April.

``We attach paramount importance to the principle of freedom of association and we hope the NGO law will have a positive rather than negative impact," European Commission spokesman Pietro Petrucci said.

An official from the Council of Europe, Europe's leading human rights body, urged the Russian government to issue permits. ``We deeply hope that the authorities will very quickly give registration to organizations such as Amnesty," Annelise Oeschger said.

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