Sunday, December 21, 2008

Kremlin-Sponsored Bill Threatens to Broaden the Definition of Treason

This Russian poster says, "Don't blab! Strictly protect military and government secrets!

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (12-18-08) reports:

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...

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...

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. [Full text]

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (12-19-08) reports:

Yesterday, Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Aleksandr Bortnikov presented his agency's annual report. The presentation -- at which journalists were present but not allowed to ask questions -- highlighted the agency's good work and the danger confronting Russia. In the last year, FSB agents were able to "disrupt the activity" of no less than 48 foreign intelligence agents and 101 recruits of foreign intelligence services -- 76 foreigners and 25 Russians. Those figures are up from last year, when only 22 agents and 71 recruits were found doing their evil work in Russia...

Despite this booming business, the FSB is likely to be even busier in the coming year if the Kremlin and Unified Russia get their way (they usually do). RFE/RL correspondent Daisy Sindelar reported yesterday on a Kremlin-sponsored bill that threatens to broaden the definition of treason so far that almost anyone could find themselves getting unwanted attention from the authorities.

The bill has Russia's already beleaguered human rights community up in arms. Sindelar refers to an open letter that leading activists have published warning about the bill, which would categorize as espionage any assistance to international organizations, including consultation "and other" work. Here are some excerpts from that letter:

These are very dangerous and far-reaching changes. If you express their content in the most direct terms, they mark a return to the norms of domestic justice of the 1920s to 1950s, when independent assessment of the situation in the country and in specific areas -- to say nothing of criticism of the regime or unsanctioned contact with foreigners -- was considered treason.

Modern democratic norms arose -- in large part -- only after people recognized a clear difference between serving an armed enemy of the state, on one hand, and speaking out against the current government and existing structures, on the other. Revolutionaries around the world have called themselves "patriots" and their patriotism has not been questioned even by their staunch opponents.

Only pre-modern and medieval leaders conflated the ideas of speaking against the authorities and siding with the state's enemies into one notion of treason.

The effort to transform in the eyes of the law acts of speaking out against the regime and exposing violations of rights and liberties into acts of aiding enemies marks a return to the darkest days of the totalitarian methods of combating dissent.

A few years ago, the government significantly expanded the definition of "extremism" and there followed a wave of prosecutions of dissent. At the same time, the real number of racially motivated crimes steadily increased.

Now, not only opposition activity, but merely reporting on what is going on in the country will be considered tantamount to serving enemy states.

Eighty-two years ago the zealous leaders of Bolshevism equated their political competitors with "enemies of the people," and declared that any dissent is a severe political crime. This was the beginning of the Great Terror, which led to the deaths of millions of our fellow citizens, including the deaths of almost all the authors of the infamous Article 58 of the Criminal Code [on treason]. A few years later, a comparable law was passed in [Hitler's] Third Reich.

Now, half a century later, these horrific formulations are coming back, almost like a complete repetition of the old ones that were created to form the basis of totalitarian purges and mass repressions. The only difference is that the authors of this bill have not yet decided to consider the criminal responsibility of the relatives [of traitors]. And membership in the Council of Europe is blocking them from restoring the death penalty.

We would like to warn the current leaders of the country and deputies that in their unseemly haste to open the path to political repression, they themselves risk being caught up the millstones. Maybe their successors will consider treasonous such action as revising the constitution, purchasing foreign securities with state funds, handing out border islands to neighboring countries, covering up the consequences of ecological catastrophes, and institutionalizing corruption....

We urge deputies -- out of a sense of responsibility for the future of Russia -- to reject this bill, and we urge the president of the Russian Federation, as the guarantor of our rights and freedoms, to refuse to sign it if it is passed.

We call on all politicians and public figures, bureaucrats and citizens, intellectuals to stand together against the adoption of Stalinist-Hitlerite laws.

We insist upon our right to directly address the people of the Russian Federation with an appeal to stop this new 1937.

The open letter was signed by Lyudmila Alekseyeva, Svetlana Gannushkina, Sergei Kovalyov, Lyov Levinson, and about a score more journalists, activists, and liberal political figures. [Full text]

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