MOSCOW (Reuters) - Moscow prosecutors told Russia's oldest human rights group on Tuesday that it must register as a "foreign agent" under a new law that critics say is a move by President Vladimir Putin to silence dissent.
Memorial opened in 1987 to document the Soviet Union's totalitarian past but has also spoken out against the detention of Russians held after an anti-Putin protest last year that turned violent.
"We don't aim to register, we aim to appeal against this," Memorial's head, Aleksander Cherkasov, told Reuters. Much of Memorial's funding comes from abroad, particularly Sweden, Norway, Holland and the European Commission.
Memorial was among the hundreds of groups whose offices have been searched over recent weeks under the new law.
It said the searches were meant to scare them into registering under the rules that demand non-governmental organizations that receive foreign funding and engage in "political activity" register as "foreign agents", a term which carries overtones of treason.
"They say we are engaged in so-called political activity because we defend political prisoners, people sentenced on political grounds, and tracking detentions during street protests," Cherkasov said.
"(The law) is aimed at leaving in place only those organizations that get government financing."
It was not clear what would happen to the many groups that plan to refused the Moscow prosecutor's office to register within a month.
Pavel Chikov, head of Agora, another rights group that does not intend to register, said that 24 groups, including an independent election watchdog and global anti-corruption network Transparency International, were now considered "foreign agents".
Putin had said the inspections of organizations' premises were "routine" and that the law was needed to prevent groups that get financing from abroad from spying for foreign capitals.
Since returning to the Kremlin, Putin has approved several laws that critics say are meant to clamp down on dissent.
(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)