[JURIST] Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov [official profile] Friday defended a Russian government directive earlier this week to shut down [BBC report] local offices of the British Council [official website] by January 1, saying that the offices in Yekaterinburg and St. Petersburg were originally established in breach of international and Russian law. Russian authorities insist the Council has violated Russian tax laws. The British Council, a non-departmental public body that promotes UK culture abroad, has denied the accusations, saying it is an arm of the British Embassy and is entitled to diplomatic immunity from tax. UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown Thursday called the shutdown order "totally unacceptable" and UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband described it as "illegal." UK-Russian relations have become very strained recently, partly due to Russia's refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoy [JURIST news archive], suspected in the November 2006 polonium-210 poisoning of British citizen and former Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko [JURIST news archive]; in July, the British government ordered several Russian diplomats removed from the UK. AFP has more. The Moscow Times has local coverage.
Russia has clamped down on foreign groups operating within the country since a controversial Russian law imposing restrictions on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) took effect [JURIST report] in April. The new law, signed [JURIST report] by Russian President Vladimir Putin in January imposes strict financial oversight on NGO operations, and provides for dissolution if an organization's activities "threaten Russia's independence or sovereignty" or if a group participates in activities deemed to deviate from its explicit mission statement. Putin has defended the law as necessary to protect against "puppeteers abroad" [JURIST report].