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Rights-Watchers Say New Russian Treason Legislation Harkens Back To '30s Terror

  • Daisy Sindelar

Lyudmila Alekseyeva says the new law would allow the authorities to interpret virtually any form of dissent as treason.

Lyudmila Alekseyeva says the new law would allow the authorities to interpret virtually any form of dissent as treason.

Rights activists in Russia say proposed legislation broadening the definition of espionage and treason will return Russia to the darkest days of the Stalinist regime.

The legislation -- backed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the ruling Unified Russia party -- was submitted to the State Duma last week.

In a joint statement, a number of Russia's most prominent human rights activists say the new government bill is "legislation in the spirit of Stalin and Hitler."

The bill, which is expected to become law, would, among other things, expand the definition of espionage to include the passing of state secrets to foreign organizations including nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

The government in past years has sought to crack down on NGOs, which it sees as a cover for foreign spies. Until now, however, not all NGOs have not been designated as "foreign organizations." The new bill proposes to change that.

'The Ax Is Now Hanging'

Lev Ponomaryov, one of the country's leading rights activists, says such stipulations target rights-watchers and journalists who regularly speak to international organizations.

"This second bill was submitted by the government of the Russian Federation -- the government of Vladimir Putin and Unified Russia. It spells out the norms for prosecuting espionage and actions against state structures. Instead of espionage, they're talking about opposition to the Russian leadership," Ponomaryov says. "The ax is now hanging over every person who interacts with representatives of foreign governments or foreign nationals."

Ponomaryov and other signatories to the joint statement say the legislation marks the return of "frightening formulations" after more than half a century.

The authors call on Russian citizens to speak out and help stop "a new 1937" -- a reference to the height of Josef Stalin's purge of tens of thousands of Soviet citizens judged to be enemies of the state.

The Russian Criminal Code currently defines treason as taking action aimed at damaging the country's external security. The bill would expand the definition to include endangering Russia's "constitutional order, sovereignty, and territorial integrity."

Critics say the changes are meant to discourage opposition protests and independence movements in Russia's regions, particularly the North Caucasus.

'We're All Extremists'

Lyudmila Alekseyeva, a veteran Russian rights campaigner with the Moscow Helsinki Group, says the new legislation would allow the authorities to interpret virtually any form of dissent as treason -- a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison. She says the legislation could be used to stem public unrest at a time of mounting economic instability.

"Food is getting more expensive; utilities are getting more expensive. When, in spite of the mounting crisis, all the burdens are placed on the shoulders of ordinary citizens, you don't have to be a genius to guess that some unrest might occur," Alekseyeva says. "We're all extremists, all of us! If you're a human being and you're capable of holding a conversation, then you're already an extremist, because you can say, 'Yikes, gasoline has gotten more expensive' -- and there you go. You're already against the government."

The new legislation was introduced the same day the Duma approved in the third reading other changes to the Criminal Code that would eliminate the right to jury trials for a series of crimes including terrorism and mass disturbances -- as well as espionage and treason. Suspects in such cases would instead face a panel of judges.

Russia has seen a dramatic scaling back of the civil liberties instituted following the Soviet collapse in the early 1990s. As president, Putin was seen as tightening Kremlin controls on virtually all aspects of Russia's political life and civil society. Now, with the country facing a grim economic forecast, Prime Minister Putin may be seeking to eliminate the last remaining outlets for public dissent.

The new changes may even prohibit one of the last forms of recourse for victims of human rights abuse. The European Court of Human Rights, which in the past years has handed down dozens of rulings against Russia -- primarily in cases involving the North Caucasus -- works closely with NGOs like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch.

If citizens are no longer free to contact those groups, the number of cases going to Strasbourg may shrink quickly.

The treason bill must pass three readings in the State Duma before moving to a vote in the parliament's upper chamber, the Federation Council. From there, it is submitted to the president for final approval.

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report

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