Russian officials searched the offices of Amnesty International on Monday as prosecutors stepped up a controversial drive to catalogue hundreds of non-governmental organisations deemed to be "foreign agents" for receiving funding from abroad.
The head of Amnesty's Russia branch, Sergei Nikitin, said three prosecutors and a tax official had arrived at its Moscow offices requesting copies of the organisation's charter documents governing their operations in Russia.
The action came on top of searches last week at Memorial, one of Russia's most prominent rights groups, and other raids on Monday at several other organisations including Public Verdict Foundation and For Human Rights Movement.
Amnesty said it was told the reason for the inspections was to check compliance with Russian legislation on NGOs and that it "is confident that all its activities comply" with the law.
But it voiced concern that "the recent wave of inspections has been carried out in such a way as to deliberately stigmatise and discredit NGOs in the eyes of the public".
Since early March, some 50 rights groups from 16 regions have reported searches, according to Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora rights association, estimating that around 2,000 groups might have been inspected across Russia in total.
He told AFP that "the unprecedented scope" of the searches was worrying and indicated that a nationwide effort to catalogue all groups with foreign funding was under way.
"The checks are systemic in nature," he said.
After President Vladimir Putin's return to the Kremlin in May, the Russian parliament fast-tracked a law forcing internationally-funded NGOs involved in politics to carry a "foreign agent" tag.
Putin, whose 13-year rule was shaken by unprecedented protests last winter, said his critics -- which include rights groups and vote monitors -- were in the pay of the US State Department.
Leading rights groups have said the law was part of a broader crackdown on civil society and vowed to boycott the measure, which activists label a throwback to the public shaming of dissidents in the Soviet Union.
The justice ministry said the searches were linked to Russia's law on "foreign agents".
It said in a statement to AFP that it was verifying whether the work of the inspected rights groups was in compliance with Russian law and their own charter.
Work was paralysed when prosecutors searched the offices of the Public Verdict Foundation, spokesman Oleg Novikov told AFP.
"Why did they come to us? We are not a political organisation," he said. Even though the state officials were polite, Novikov said there was no doubt about the purpose of the checks.
"Their task may be to sow worry and chaos," he said, describing the scale of the searches as "serious".
The Public Verdict Foundation helps victims of abuses by law enforcement agencies
State-controlled television channel NTV, famous for its muck-raking documentaries against anti-Kremlin opposition, accompanied prosecutors on their raid of the Memorial offices last week.
Amnesty's Nikitin said a television crew from NTV wanted to film the search but that he had turned them away.
Chikov from Agora said it was unclear what the checks may lead to, warning: "Repressions may start after they analyse the information they receive."
Before elections, Putin has icily compared Russian vote monitoring group Golos, which receives money from abroad, to Judas -- the disciple who betrayed Jesus -- and said its Western funding was "money thrown to the wind".