WASHINGTON November 15 (By Suleiman Wali for RIA Novosti) – A controversial new law that expands the definition of treason in Russia is being decried by critics in the United States as the Kremlin’s continuing effort to return the country to a “darker criminal code.”
“Over the past six months, a series of laws have been passed in Russia that have the repressive legislative underpinnings of the Soviet Union,” Susan Corke, the director for Eurasia programs at the Freedom House, a Washington-based human rights organization, told RIA Novosti.
The new Russian treason law, which took effect Wednesday, states that anyone possessing or sharing information deemed a state secret could potentially face anywhere from eight to 20 years in prison on charges of espionage.
The definition of espionage in the law includes “furnishing financial, material, technical, consultative or other help to a foreign state, or international or foreign organization.”
“This vaguely drafted and quickly passed piece of legislation is creating an environment of fear among Russians that’s being used to silence opposing groups,” Corke added.
In a strongly worded opinion article in The Moscow Times, Corke and David Kramer, president of the Freedom House, said the treason law, along with Russia’s 2002 extremism law and this year’s passage of both the “foreign agent” rule and the Internet blacklist were fueling a dangerous social climate.
“Vladimir Putin has been busy creating a legislative framework that might make Lenin proud. … Putin is creating a system where foreigners are the enemy and Russians are potential collaborators,” they wrote.
New Law Drafted by Domestic Security Agency
The new law, which was drafted by the Federal Security Service, a successor agency to the KGB known by its Russian acronym of FSB, gives an eight-year prison term and/or a $10,000 fine to anyone getting hold of state secrets illegally, even if they aren’t passed on to foreigners. The maximum sentence for high treason remains 20 years.
It broadens the definition of treason in Russia’s Criminal Code to include activities that endanger Russia’s “constitutional order, sovereignty and territorial and state integrity.”
In a statement, the FSB explained that the treason law better protects confidential information. It said the previous precedent, which was a law passed in the 1960s, failed to provide an adequate deterrence against foreign spies, according to the Associated Press (AP).
“Tactics and methods of foreign special services have changed, becoming more subtle and disguised as legitimate actions,” the FSB said. “Claims about a possible twist of spy mania in connection with the law’s passage are ungrounded and based exclusively on emotions.”
On Monday, Putin had promised human rights organizations that he would review the treason bill before it became law, but he signed the measure into law despite his pledge.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday that the president would review the treason law and was prepared to introduce amendments if its implementation reveals “some problems or aspects restricting rights and freedoms.”
Fallout From Mass Protests
Human rights activists have viewed Putin’s new measures as an attempt to instill fear in his critics and opponents following a series of huge street protests in Moscow against his reelection earlier this year.
“One of the aims is surely to never have that (protests) happen again and to demonize any … people or organization that might be associated with that,” Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division, told the AP.
Putin, who served in the KGB for 16 years, had said that the demonstrations were staged by Washington in order to weaken Russia.
In October, Moscow severed its 20-year relationship with the US Agency for International Development, ending its work in Russia, with Moscow claiming the organization was using its funds to sway national elections. Washington has denied that claim.
On Monday, Putin said the recent measures were simply a way of creating a civil society.
“Everything that is taking place here is being done for a sole purpose: To make sure our country is stable. Effective and stable,” Putin said.