Russian NGOs query Putin's $1 bln foreign funds claim

Russian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on Thursday demanded an explanation from President Vladimir Putin after he accused them of receiving $1 billion in foreign funds this year, as authorities target hundreds of NGOs in an unprecedented wave of inspections.

Leaders of dozens of prominent NGOs involved in human rights, the environment and election monitoring signed an open letter to Putin after he claimed such groups had attracted "almost a billion dollars" from abroad this year for "domestic political activities."

"The figures you announced exceed our understanding of the amount of foreign financial support to Russian NGOs by at least ten times," said the letter signed by representatives of 56 organisations.

"Who are the organisations that receive such money?" the activists asked Putin.

Putin made the claim last week in an interview with Germany's ARD public television when asked about raids of hundreds of NGOs under a controversial new law that forces politically active groups with foreign funding to register as "foreign agents."

"Doesn't society have a right to know who receives such money, and for what purpose?" Putin asked.

The groups asked him to "give an order for the immediate publication of the full list of the 654 NGOs detailing the sums they received over the past four months and for what sort of activities these sums were received."

NGOs are required to provide annual financial reports, and many said this week that the figures named by Putin are unheard of.

When pressed by Russian media for an explanation, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the figure was provided by security agencies.

The open letter was signed by most prominent Russian groups, including rights organisation Memorial and vote monitor Golos.

The Russian justice ministry on Tuesday launched a probe into Golos for failing to declare itself as a foreign agent after receiving a Norwegian rights prize last winter. It denies the accusation for which it faces heavy fines.

Visiting Council of Europe commissioner for human rights Nils Muiznieks on Thursday named the issue as a major cause for concern.

"We are very concerned about this situation," Muiznieks said of the "foreign agent" law and the massive inspections over the past weeks.

"Many of our partners are practically paralysed" by the need to provide extra documents, he said at Moscow a news conference.

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.