GENEVA Russia's new law on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) came under fire at the United Nations on Monday from Western critics led by the United States calling for it to be rescinded.
Western powers and rights groups view the restrictive legislation and inspections as being aimed at intimidating activists and silencing criticism of President Vladimir Putin.
But the Kremlin says that law requiring NGOs with funding from abroad to register as "foreign agents" is needed to ensure transparency and the justice minister defended it during a debate on Russia's record at the U.N. Human Rights Council.
The Geneva forum examines the policies and practices of all U.N. member states every four years. The open debate and its non-binding recommendations are designed to train a spotlight on abuses and pressure governments to make democratic reforms.
"We're concerned by laws which restrict civil society, including human rights activists, which have been used to justify the wave of unannounced inspections of civil society organisations," U.S. Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe said.
Washington recommended "the removal of legislation that restricts civil society from receiving international funding and (that Russian authorities) cease unannounced inspections aimed at intimidating civil society organisations", she said.
Arbitrary arrests and "prosecutions of peaceful protesters and opposition leaders" were also of concern, she added.
Britain and Germany were among countries to speak out at the law on NGOs that engage in political activity, which came into force in November, but stopped short of demanding its removal.
"We are concerned by recent developments in Russia, particularly legislative steps taken to control civil society, restrict political opposition and marginalise minority groups," British diplomat Robert Last said in a speech.
Russian's main independent election watchdog and thousands of other non-governmental groups face fines or closure, the justice ministry said earlier this month.
A Moscow court handed a 300,000-rouble (6,128 pounds) fine last week to Golos, a vote-monitoring group that documented fraud allegations in last year's presidential election and a 2011 parliamentary election, for declining to register as a "foreign agent" under the new law.
Rights groups say the searches by officials as diverse as prosecutors, tax inspectors, the federal migration services and fire-safety officers are intended to scare them into registering under the new law as "foreign agents" - a term they say echoes Cold War-era espionage and would undermine their credibility.
The Kremlin says the checks at the offices of hundreds of NGOs in recent weeks are to enforce legal compliance.
Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov, who leads Russia's delegation to the U.N. talks, said that the new NGO law "cannot be considered as curbs on the activities of organisations".
"Sanctions only come into force if provisions of the law are not upheld. Sanctions are only meted out if there is a reason."
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Michael Roddy)