Russian election monitoring group Golos (Voice) on Wednesday slammed the authorities for trying to halt its work after the justice ministry launched a court case accusing it of failing to declare itself as a "foreign agent" with international funding.
"This is total lawlessness. They have given an instruction not to let us cover elections," the group's executive director Lilia Shibanova told AFP, vowing to fight back and possibly even countersue the ministry.
The group, which has claimed mass falsifications in parliamentary and presidential polls won by Vladimir Putin, is accused of "carrying out the functions of a foreign agent" and failing to register.
The case is seen as the first test of a law passed by parliament last year obliging foreign-funded NGOs to register as a "foreign agent" and widely criticised as a throwback to the Soviet past.
The authorities have been carrying out a wide-ranging crackdown on NGOs that has included raids by prosecutors on more than 250 groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
The justice ministry said in a statement that Golos "receives foreign funding and carries out political activities in Russia, thus it fulfils the functions of a foreign agent".
The group insists it no longer receives foreign funding after turning down all offers of foreign support precisely because of the NGO law.
It has refused to register as a foreign agent as a matter of principle.
"Golos has not received any foreign funding since the law on NGOs came into force on November 20, 2012. We exist only on donations from Russian citizens," Shibanova said.
The case was due to be sent to a Moscow magistrate's court Wednesday.
"The justice ministry has the right to halt our activities if there are violations. There are elections literally every Sunday and it's very convenient for the authorities to close us down for an indefinite period," Shibanova said.
The group's lawyer, Ramil Akhmetgaliyev, told AFP that the justice ministry has the right to halt the NGO's activities "starting tomorrow" if it so wishes.
The group currently faces a fine of up to 500,000 rubles ($16,000) while Shibanova personally could be fined up to 300,000 rubles ($9,600).
Shibanova stressed to AFP that the group would pay the fines if found guilty.
But Akhmetgaliyev warned the case could easily escalate into criminal charges against Shibanova, for which she would risk two years in prison, if the group is found guilty and does not register as a foreign agent.
"I think that the state organs will choose to act in the harshest way possible with Golos," he said.
Golos said in a statement on its website that the justice ministry had listed its sole element of foreign funding as the 7,728.40-euro ($10,118) Sakharov Freedom Prize, awarded last year by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.
But the group said it instructed its bank to send the money back to Norway in January, realising it was problematic under the new law.
Putin in an interview with German ARD television last week said that NGOs had received 28.3 billion rubles ($909 million) in funding from abroad in the first four months after the law was passed. But activists have rubbished the figure as absurdly large.
Russia's Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika said Wednesday in a statement after meeting Council of Europe rights commissar Nils Muiznieks that the checks on NGOs were legal, planned and "preventative".
USAID, the US agency for international development, used to provide significant funding to Golos but was banned from working in Russia last year.
Founded in 2000, Golos embarrassed Putin by publishing a study which said the president won less than 51 percent in March 2012 polls, against the official result of 64 percent.
Ahead of parliamentary elections in 2011, Putin icily compared groups that received international funding to monitor polls to Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus Christ.