MOSCOW (AP) — Russia's Justice Ministry says it is filing a legal case against the country's only independent elections monitoring group for allegedly failing to register as a foreign agent.
Under a law passed last year, any non-governmental organization that receives foreign funding and is deemed to be involved in political activities must register as a "foreign agent." Critics say the term is pejorative and aimed at undermining NGOs' credibility and support.
Failure to register carries a potential fine of up to 300,000 rubles (about $9,500) for the organization's director and 500,000 rubles ($16,000) for the organization.
A Justice Ministry statement Tuesday said the vote-monitoring group Golos was found to have engaged in political activity and had failed to register. The case is to be presented to a court on Wednesday.
Golos director Liliya Shibanova told the state news agency RIA Novosti that the group has not received foreign funding since the law took effect. "I don't know on what basis they're doing this."
The announcement comes after a wide wave of searches at hundreds of non-governmental organizations in recent weeks. The searches brought sharp criticism from the West, including the United States where State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland characterized them as a "witch-hunt."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday prodded President Vladimir Putin on the NGOs issue, telling him during his visit that "a lively civil society can only develop if individual organizations can work without fear and worry."
Putin brushed aside the concern, saying: "We aren't trying to put anyone under control, but we want to know how much money, through what channels and for what purpose, is being sent."
Putin and other Russian officials have long complained that Western countries aim to undermine his government by funding opposition groups. The criticism became more vehement after a wave of massive anti-Putin protests broke in Russia in late 2011.
After he returned to the presidency in May, Russia enacted several measures aimed at stifling opposition, including the foreign agents registration law and sharply increasing penalties for taking part in unauthorized demonstrations.