MOSCOW, 22 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, has overwhelmingly approved the second reading of an antiterrorism bill that would, among other things, allow the Russian authorities to mobilize the army during a terrorist attack and impose a security clampdown when it suspects an attack is pending.
The draft law sailed through the Duma today on the second of three required readings, winning 408 votes. Just one member of parliament voted against. Five abstained.
"It seems to me that the lessons of Beslan have not been learned the way they should have been at all."
The bill, whose purpose is to determine what steps the military, law-enforcement agencies, and other security bodies can take to prevent and deal with terrorist attacks, passed its first reading in December 2004. However, due to widespread criticism, it had been sent back for revision until today.
The criticism reflected the haste with which the Duma's Security Committee drew up the document in the wake of the Beslan hostage tragedy in September 2004, in which more than 330 hostages were killed.
Gennady Gudkov, a member of the committee, says the Beslan tragedy highlighted Russia's dire lack of coherent legislation governing counterterrorist activities.
He also acknowledged operational weaknesses, saying that "the problem of the Russian government is that it lacks clear coordination of action and responsibility between power structures and the special forces in charge of counteracting terrorism. The problem in Beslan was that for several days the operational headquarters had no chief to determine the course of operations.”
Taking Out Any Threat
The draft does, in one respect, respond to earlier criticisms. The new version of the bill lifts restrictions on media coverage of terrorist attacks that had been proposed in the initial draft, sparking protests among advocates of press freedom.
However, the draft law contains a number of controversial elements. One is a clause that allows Russia to eliminate suspected international terrorist targets beyond its borders, although the country's security services would be supposed to act within the terms of international treaties and agreements signed by Moscow.
Another provision that has roused particular controversy allows the military to shoot down hijacked airplanes or sink ships even if there are hostages on board.
"Planes will be shot down. And they should be shot down today if there was a threat similar to what happened in the United States on 11 September," Vladimir Vasiliev, the chairman of the Duma's Security Committee, told reporters after the vote. "The state must always protect its population from such terrible threats."
The bill allows officials to negotiate with hostage-takers, but bars consideration of their political demands.
An All-Too-Useful Clampdown Clause?
A third unpopular clause empowers the authorities to impose a 60-day security clampdown in regions where they suspect a terrorist attack is being planned.
During that period, the government and the security services would be free to tap telephones, restrict communications, conduct sweeping identity checks, restrict traffic, ban public demonstrations and gatherings, and enter private premises without a warrant.
Many observers fear that this measure could be used to crush any form of public opposition and justify abuse against civilians, particularly in the restive North Caucasus. Rights groups have consistently accused Russian federal troops of human rights violations in the region, particularly in war-torn Chechnya.
Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, says the lack of control over law-enforcement agencies makes the proposed legislation open to abuse.
"This law should on the one hand clearly define the responsibilities of the power structures, while on the other hand placing their activities under as much control as possible -- which is not done here," Petrov says. "It seems to me that the lessons of Beslan have not been learned the way they should have been at all. In the current situation, any law that gives extra power to the powers-that-be and law-enforcement organs is dangerous for society."
The New Counterterrorism Chiefs
The draft law goes hand in hand with President Vladimir Putin's decree on 16 February to create a National Counterterrorism Committee (NAK). This new state body will be in charge of coordinating all federal-level antiterrorism policies and operations, and will be headed by the director of Russia's security services (FSB), Nikolai Patrushev.
The president also ordered the creation of a network of counterterrorism commissions commanded by regional leaders and regional operational units staffed by members of the FSB.
Lev Ponomarev, a veteran human rights activist who heads the All-Russian Movement For Human Rights, says this decree is "very dangerous" as it creates "a new organ that operates in parallel with the cabinet of ministers and whose decrees must be obeyed by all the structures that form this antiterrorist committee."
"This collective organ is headed by people in shoulder straps, by the FSB, so technically, a parallel government under the orders of the FSB is being created," Ponamarev argues.
The third and final vote on the draft law is scheduled for 26 February. It then needs to be approved by the upper chamber of parliament, the Federation Council, before being signed into law by Putin.