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Russia rights group fights 'foreign agent' tag

MOSCOW -- Russia's oldest rights group began a legal battle on Friday to avoid being branded a “foreign agent” under a new law it sees as a tool of repression by President Vladimir Putin.

Memorial, which has fought to preserve the memory of Josef Stalin's victims for a quarter of a century, has faced problems ever since Mikhail Gorbachev gave it his blessing in the Soviet Union's dying days. Its employees have faced harassment and bureaucratic obstacles at almost every turn.

But Memorial and groups like vote-monitor Golos, which has revealed electoral fraud, say they have never faced a bigger threat to their existence than in Putin's year-old third term.

His return to the Kremlin has marked the start of a clampdown on civil liberties and democracy, a crude attempt to tighten his hold on power after the biggest protests of his 13-year rule, they say.

Several opposition leaders face prosecution on what they call trumped-up charges, the pliant parliament has passed laws that turn up the heat on opponents and the threat of a battering by police has hung over protesters since a rally turned violent.

“There has never been such an assault on civil liberties in the last 20 years. This is an attempt to return to the Soviet era,” Memorial's head, Alexander Cherkasov, said before his group challenged the new law in a Moscow court on Friday.

“We are not going to register as a foreign agent because it would be a lie ... An agent is someone like James Bond who comes down with a parachute and blows up railways.”

Like other groups affected by the new law, Memorial believes the term “foreign agent” has echoes of the Cold War and overtones of treason which would discredit it. It has already had graffiti saying “Foreign agent (heart) USA” daubed across one of the walls of its Moscow headquarters.

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