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Russian-U.S. Diaspora Group Shuts Down, Blaming 'FBI Measures'

A Russian cultural group in the United States says it has shut down after some of its members were questioned by FBI agents allegedly for potential violations of the U.S. law on foreign agents.

The Russian Community Council of the USA said in a statement hat it had been forced to close after “after a year of active and nationwide FBI measures directed at over 300 Russian community members.”

“We interpret the FBI’s measures towards Russian community members, especially individuals who organize Russian cultural events and openly advocate for more dialogue and people-to-people ties with Russia, as a form of pressure reminiscent of the Cold War era,” the organization said in its November 18 statement.

“It is important to stress that the Community Council is an informal organization that never engaged in any political activities, nor did it possess, receive, or give out any financial resources,” the group said.

The statement did not provide other details. E-mails sent to the organization’s New York-based president, and other members, were not immediately returned.

The reported closure drew sharp statements from the Foreign Ministry and the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., which alleged “deliberate repressions” against Russians in the United States.

"For several years, the FBI has undertaken hostile action against the Russian-speaking community in the United States, threatening criminal action over the alleged non-compliance with the FARA act," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters at a briefing in Moscow on November 19.

Known in Russian as the Coordinating Council of Russian Compatriots of the U.S., or KSORS, the group says it is a non-commercial, non-government organization aimed at “supporting organizations of Russian compatriots [and] to preserve and popularize the Russian language and cultural and historical heritage in the United States.”

The U.S. Justice Department did not immediately respond to an e-mail inquiry from RFE/RL seeking comment.

Earlier this year, The Daily Beast reported that the organization was under FBI investigation and that "the investigation has included the questioning of dozens of people associated with the group, as well as home and office searches.”

Тhe woman identified on the organization's website as its president, Elena Branson, gave an interview to the TV channel formerly known as Russia Today in late September, where she described an early morning FBI raid on her house on September 29, 2020:

"It was about 6 a.m. And when the door opened, there were about 30 FBI agents on the doorstep, all dressed in uniform, all with pistols, bulletproof vests and with a device to knock down the door," Branson was quoted as saying. "They showed a search warrant and a warrant so that if they didn't like something, they could [detain] me too. The agents asked me to go out and searched the apartment for several hours. They didn't tell me what they were looking for."

Branson was quoted as saying that the agents took iPhones, iPads, computers, tax declarations, and other documents: "They took a huge amount of things. The whole van's worth was taken."

She said she had been given legal documents indicating allegations of possible violations of the the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Action, or another similar charge known as Section 951, or "espionage-lite."

Branson told the Russian channel she fled the United States in late October.

The reported closure of the organization comes as “foreign agents” laws, particularly in Russia, have been in the news of late.

Russia has stepped up enforcement of its own 9-year-old foreign agent law to target a widening net of NGOs, rights groups, civil society organizations, and journalists and media organizations.

More than 160 organizations and individuals have been designed “foreign agents” under the Russian law, a label that has onerous financial reporting requirements. For media organizations and even individual journalists, the law also requires attaching an intrusive label to text articles or broadcast stories.

The designation has forced lawyers to flee Russia, as well as some journalists.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and several of its affiliated publications and programs have also been designated.

Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, have sought to draw parallels between the Russian law and the U.S. Foreign Agent Registration Act, a law in force since the 1930s, although the U.S. law does not mandate the same requirements as the Russian law does.

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