A prominent member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has criticized a move by the Russian State Duma to reintroduce slander as a criminal offense.
Switzerland's Andreas Gross said the new legislation joins a group of harsh new restrictions on everything from Internet use to foreign funding for nongovernmental organizations that have been whisked through the Russian parliament in the early weeks of Vladimir Putin's second presidency.
Gross, a PACE co-rapporteur for monitoring Russia's commitment to its obligations as a Council of Europe member, will be in Moscow on July 16 for talks with officials.
In an interview with Danila Galperovich of RFE/RL's Russian Service, Gross says the new slander legislation is not in keeping with European standards, and will be included in PACE's new report on Russia, due to be presented to the council's assembly in October.
It will also be up for discussion as he meets with Russia's acting Justice Minister Aleksandr Konovalov and Prosecutor General Yury Chaika, among others:
"It's a law which is an invitation to punish critics you don't like, and it does not respect the fact that in a democratic society everybody needs critics in order to learn," Gross told RFE/RL. "And the more power you have, the more critics you need. This is exactly one of the things I would like to discuss even with the highest authorities, because I wonder why in fact they're showing such weakness. The Russian authorities are strong enough, and they don't have to be afraid."
Russia 'Moving Away' From Democracy
The official purpose of Gross's visit is to discuss PACE's 80-page report on Russia, which is being finalized before the October assembly.
Russia has been a member of the Council of Europe since 1996. As a member, it is obliged to join the European Convention on Human Rights and to honor other democratic principles stipulated by the Strasbourg-based body.
But Gross, who previously served as the PACE rapporteur on Chechnya, says he now sees Russia "moving away" from democracy under the newly reinstated Putin, who has declined to meet with him during his visit.
As an example, Gross pointed to the case of the punk protest group Pussy Riot, three of whose members are in police custody and facing possible jail terms of up to seven years for entering Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral in February and performing a song that was critical of Putin.
According to Gross, the Pussy Riot controversy "is one of those developments under the new Putin presidency which makes us a lot of headache:"
"It's absolutely not acceptable that when somebody makes such a small mistake or such a small action, [that] they be punished for seven years in prison," he said.
"This has also something to do with the role of the church. The church in Russia has a long tradition of always serving the power, and the power also makes use of the church. It's not a good sign for a free society, because the church is something private, religion is something private."