"Undesirable' foreign NGOs may be a no-go in Russia

MOSCOW - Russian lawmakers on Tuesday passed a controversial bill allowing authorities to ban foreign NGOs deemed "undesirable" for the state, the latest step in a crackdown condemned by rights activists.

Pro-Kremlin legislators overwhelmingly approved the legislation - which still has to be approved by the rubberstamp upper chamber and signed off by President Vladimir Putin - that targets international non-governmental organisations accused of undermining Russia's "state security".

The law, opposed by the Kremlin's own human rights ombudsman, allows authorities to bar foreign civil society groups seen as threatening Russia's "defence capabilities" or "consitutional foundations" and go after local activists working with them.

Russian citizens who co-operate with the banned organisations can be hit by large fines and jailed for up to six years.

Rights groups have roundly condemned the legislation, with Amnesty International calling it "the latest chapter in an unprecedented crackdown against nongovernmental organisations" aimed at stifling free speech in Russia.

Critics have also said that the vague wording of the law - which gives Russia's general prosecutor the right to impose the "undesirable" tag without going to court - could allow officials to target foreign businesses working in Russia.

Russian authorities have launched a sustained campaign to curb civil society since Putin won his third term as president amid public protests in 2012.

Russia passed legislation that year forcing local non-governmental organisations that receive overseas funding to register as "foreign agents", a loaded term activists say is aimed at halting their work.

Scores of organisations, from environmental campaign groups to gay rights activists, have already been targeted in the clampdown.

Moscow has become increasingly isolationist since the start of the Ukraine crisis, which saw Russia seize the Crimea peninsula and allegedly mastermind a separatist conflict after the ouster of a Kremlin-backed president in Ukraine.

Strongman Putin has portrayed the upheaval in Kiev as part of a US-backed conspiracy to curb Russia. Lawmakers claim the "undesirable" organisation bill is designed to stop a Western-instigated revolution against the Kremlin.

Critics of Putin, however, say the former KGB agent is using allegations of foreign meddling to tighten his grip on power and allow a small elite of corrupt cronies around him to enrich themselves immensely.