By Alissa de Carbonnel
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian's main independent election watchdog and thousands of other non-governmental groups face fines or closure, the justice ministry said on Tuesday, in what activists call a campaign to silence criticism of President Vladimir Putin by rights groups.
He has dismissed criticism of a recent wave of inspections of non-governmental organizations that have caused concern in the West. Putin has described the checks as "routine measures... to bring the activities of organizations in line with the law".
Rights groups say the searches by officials as diverse as prosecutors, tax inspectors, the federal migration services and fire-safety officers are intended to scare them into registering under a new law as "foreign agents" - a term they say echoes Cold War-era espionage and would undermine their credibility.
The Justice Ministry published a report on its website saying it has asked courts to close or suspend the work of nearly 9,000 NGOs, and that another 5,610 face fines.
The ministry singled out vote-monitoring organization Golos in a separate statement, saying it was taking the group to court because it had failed to register as a foreign agent.
Critics of Putin said Golos was targeted because of its role in reporting widespread allegations of vote fraud in a March 2012 presidential election and a December 2011 parliamentary vote.
Evidence reported by Golos helped fuel a wave of big opposition street protest against Putin's 13-year dominance of politics last winter in Moscow and other cities.
The ministry said Golos "receives foreign funding and engages in political activity in Russia, i.e., it functions as a foreign agent" and was in breach of the law by refusing to register - an accusation Golos denied.
DENIAL OF FOREIGN FUNDING
The group says it has not received any foreign grants since the legislation, which applies to foreign-funded NGOs who engage in political activity, came into force in November and vowed to fight the case in court.
"It's a sign that without a doubt there has been a political order against Golos," Grigory Melkonyants, deputy head of Golos, told Reuters. "These fines and made-up charges are part of a campaign to discredit and put pressure on Russian NGOs."
The penalty if a Russian court finds Golos in breach of the new law is a fine of up to 500,000 roubles ($16,000) for the group and up to 300,000 roubles ($9,600) for its director.
Most of the NGOs targeted say they are not involved in politics and are acting in Russia's interests, not against them.
Leading advocacy groups Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are among those who have boycotted the new law and whose offices have been searched, alarming the West.
The United States has characterized the inspections as "some kind of a witch-hunt". The European Union has called them part of a deeply troubling trend that included laws curtailing freedoms and allowing prosecution of activists.
Pavel Chikov, head of legal-aid group Agora, said most of the 8,916 NGOs that may be shut or suspended are lesser-known NGOs in breach of rules on reporting on their activity.
Putin, after returning to the Kremlin in May, has said the tighter controls on NGOs are needed to stop foreign meddling in Russian affairs and attempts to foment unrest.
"These organizations are engaged in internal political activity. Should our society not be informed of who gets this money and for what purposes?" he said in an interview with German public broadcaster ARD last week.
But civic rights groups who have boycotted the new law say it is vaguely worded to allow arbitrary application for political ends and echoes Stalin-era political repression.
(Reporting By Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Mark Heinrich)