Peru’s Congress is expected on Thursday to give final approval to a controversial law strengthening government regulation of campaigning groups, a measure condemned as “totalitarian” both in the Andean country and internationally.

The law would force non-governmental organisations and their international donors to register with APCI, the state watchdog, and give details of their funding and activities.

APCI would also have responsibility for “harmonising” the groups’ activities “in line with national development policy and the public interest”.

More than 3,000 NGOs operate in Peru, with a total annual income estimated at $500m for the sector.

The watchdog – whose board of directors is presided over by the prime minister and includes the foreign and finance ministers – would be given sanctions to punish groups it judges to have stepped beyond the national interest.

The law has touched a raw nerve in a country where human and civil rights were trampled during the regime of Alberto Fujimori, president from 1990 to 2000. Opponents say the legislation would in effect end the independence of NGOs and fear it could silence and weaken groups that oppose government policy.

“We’re not opposed to regulation,” says Yohny Lescano, an opposition congressman, “but we do object to the government telling civil associations what to do and in what framework they have to act.”

The bill has even been criticised by the attorney-general’s office, raising the possibility that the law could be challenged in court.

The proposal has outraged Peru’s media, which still bear the scars of manipulation by the Fujimori regime. Augusto Alvarez Rodrich, director of Peru 21 newspaper, says the law “is very dangerous for the free expression of ideas” and accuses the administration of President Alan García of falling prey to “totalitarian temptations”.

The legislation has also drawn fire internationally. “The new restrictions would oblige local NGOs to submit to a level of interference and state control that recalls a totalitarian regime,” said Human Rights Watch, the US campaigning group, in a letter to Mr García this week.

The Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an arm of the Organisation of American States, said the legislation “would have a negative impact on the work of human rights organisations”.

Jorge del Castillo, Peru’s prime minister, told the Financial Times that much of the opposition was exaggerated.

“It’s not true that we want NGOs to disappear or we’re trying to attack freedom of speech,” he said.

Mr del Castillo admits that it might have been preferable to negotiate new regulation directly with the groups concerned but points out that the proposal came from Congress rather than the executive and was drawn up before the current government took office in July.

But the government’s Congressional supporters have been forceful in pushing through the bill.

“Many of these groups are not NGOs but political organisations,” says Mauricio Mulder, secretary-general of the governing Apra party.

Apra’s tactics have raised suspicions that the government has a secret arrangement with supporters of Mr Fujimori, who is in Chile waiting to hear if he will be extradited to Peru to face charges of corruption and human rights abuses. Apra has 36 seats in the 120-member Congress, and allied itself with the 13-strong pro-Fujimori bloc to back the measure.

Human rights groups fear the law could be used against organisations agitating for Mr Fujimori’s extradition, an issue on which many believe the government is dragging its feet.

Many in Peru suspect the proposal was revived in response to the administration’s perception that NGOs are helping organise protests against foreign investors.

Officials were irritated at the role they said Racimos de Ungurahui, a Lima campaigning group, had in encouraging indigenous Achuar protesters to occupy an oilfield operated by Pluspetrol, the Argentine energy group, in the northern Amazon last month.

Wilfredo Ardito of Aprodeh, a human rights group in Lima, says the NGOs are concerned the law could be used to curtail the activities of environmental and community groups in mining areas.

Mr Ardito also highlights worries that the law could be used against groups investigating human rights abuses during Mr García’s first stint as president from 1985 to 1990.

If Congress approves the bill, Mr García will have 15 days to sign it or suggest modifications. Some NGOs are hoping he will change the measure.

But Mr del Castillo’s views suggest that is wishful thinking.

“Many of these NGOs are run by communists, pinkos and failed politicians who have set themselves up in opposition to the political class,” he says.

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