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New Russian Legislation Would Increase FSB's Authority

Rights activists and opponents of the government say the law would give Russia's Federal Security Service a free hand to intimidate citizens and harass political rivals.
The Russian government has submitted a bill to the State Duma that would allow the Federal Security Service (FSB) to take "preventive measures" against individuals suspected of engaging in "extremist" activity.

The bill, which was sent to the lower chamber of parliament, the State Duma, on April 24, also allows the FSB to punish citizens who do not comply with what it describes as the service's "legitimate demands."

Current legislation allows the FSB to impose official warnings and fines on organizations whose activities it deems extremist. Until now, however, the FSB has not been allowed to target individual citizens.

The FSB says the bill -- which comes in the aftermath of the March 29 subway bombings in Moscow that killed dozens of rush-hour commuters -- is necessary due to what it describes as a sharp rise in extremist activity in recent years.

But rights activists and opponents of the government say it will give the security services a free hand to intimidate citizens and harass political rivals.

Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of the opposition Yabloko party, tells RFE/RL's Russian Service that the bill is a reaction to the wave of antigovernment protests that have swept Russia in recent months.

"This unties the FSB's hands and allows them to psychologically pressure a large circle of people," Mitrokhin says. "It will mostly affect political activists and opponents of the current authorities. Russia's rulers are very frightened by the demonstrations that have taken place and are trying to react to this."

Rights activists fear that the bill, if it becomes law, would revive the Soviet-era practice in which the KGB would "invite" citizens for "informal" talks about their activities and those of their associates -- a common tactic used to harass dissidents.

Defining 'Extremism'

Russian media sources say the law would allow the FSB to warn citizens that their behavior could create conditions that could lead to a crime -- even in cases where there are no legal grounds to hold them criminally responsible. It also provides for fines against citizens who disobey FSB officials or in any way hinder their work.

According to an explanatory note posted on the State Duma's website, the law is necessary due to a sharp rise in extremist activity. The note cites figures from the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor-General's Office claiming that extremist crimes rose by 30 percent from 2007 to 2008.

The note also criticized the media for propagating "individualism, violence, and mistrust of the state's capacity to protect its citizens, effectively drawing young people to extremist activities."

Ilya Ponomarev, a lawmaker from the Duma faction of A Just Russia, calls this hyperbole, saying that the government's figures on extremist activity are inflated.

"They often label absolutely normal social activists as extremists," Ponomarev says. "And when the authorities are faced with a real threat to public safety they are helpless. Neither preemptive warnings nor fines will solve this problem."

Return To Soviet Practice

Gennady Gudkov, the head of the A Just Russia faction, told the daily "Kommersant" that the bill revives "a Soviet-era practice that was used against dissidents and those who distributed ideologically harmful literature and engaged in similarly harmful conversations."

Likewise, Viktor Ilyukhin of the Communist Party told "Kommersant" that "a warning can be given to anyone who criticizes the authorities."

Despite opposition from A Just Russia and the Communists, the pro-Kremlin United Russia party has enough seats in the Duma to pass the legislation without the support of other parties.

Soviet-era dissident Lev Ponomaryov, the head of the For Human Rights movement, says the legislation continues the erosion of the rule of law in Russia that has been taking place over the past decade.

"If this law passes, it will be a very serious violation of the principle of the presumption of innocence," Ponomaryov says. "It will strengthen the position of the security services and violate the spirit of the constitution. This will lead to a state not governed by law that is under the control of the security services."

Ilya Yashin, a member of the opposition Solidarity movement, says he and other activists will need to brace for a wave of harassment if the bill is passed.

"This is just another way to pressure opposition activists," Yashin says. "They will scare us, fine us, and repress us. This fits in with the logic of how things are developing."

written by Brian Whitmore in Prague with reporting from Moscow by RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondent Veronika Bode
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