By Madeline Schiesser
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe
MOSCOW, Russia – Russian Parliament’s State Duma has, in its first reading, unanimously approved a bill that would broaden the definition of treason, equating it to espionage and potentially criminalizing many kinds of international advocacy. According to rights activists, this legislation appears to be part of a widening crackdown on dissent. Lawmakers claim that it would make law enforcement more effective.
Recently the Kremlin has moved to force the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) out of Russia. Opposition demonstrators have seen strict criminal charges. (See Pussy Riots and Osipova.)
In what is seen as the latest crackdown on dissent, the proposed legislation would open up the definition of treason to include financial or consultative assistance to a foreign state or organization. The definition of high treason would include activities harming Russia’s external security.
This legislation results from Kremlin concern that foreign funding is adverse to the interests of the Russian government. “We should include international organizations on the list of agents that can be charged with treason due to the fact that foreign intelligence agencies actively use them to camouflage their spying activity,” FSB deputy head Yury Gorbunov told the Duma.
The legislation specifically defines expands treason as “providing financial, technical, advisory or other assistance to a foreign state or international organization . . . directed against Russia’s security, including its constitutional order, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.”
Many Russian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) rely on foreign funding; such funding would be difficult to receive under the new legislation. NGOs may be further inhibited from working with Russian citizens because the legislation would allow Russian citizens providing assistance to foreign states or international organizations to be charged with treason.
And, a person or group could be charged with high treason and sentenced to up to 20 years in prison if found to be relaying a state secret to a “foreign government or international, foreign organization.”
Environment and Rights Center (ERC) Bellona chairman Alexander Nikitin says, “This is yet another bill from the series of recent laws meant to tighten the noose around the necks of Russia’s citizens, especially those who work with NGOS, who work as journalists, who work as researchers as well as those who work as scientists.”
Furthermore, a law passed in July, which takes effect November 20, requires NGOs, or civil society organizations, that advocate and receive foreign funding to register with the Ministry of Justice as “foreign agents.” Failure to register carries large fines and closure for the NGO and up to two year’s prison time for employees. Status as a “foreign agent” must be stated on all literature and websites. As the term has roots to the Stalinist purges, many NGOs are concerned that the measure is designed to destroy their credibility.
Lyudmila Alekseyeva a human rights advocate of the Moscow Helsinki Group, which has also pledged not to register as a “foreign agent,” said the treason bill is aimed at “ending any independent public activism.”
Veteran rights activist Lev Ponomaryov, pointing to the “very broad definitions of treason and espionage” said the legislation could be used to prosecute government critics. He explained that “everyone who accidentally becomes aware of secret information can be convicted” and that Russian leaders “have now chosen an ideological course — you can even call it a national idea — to search for external and internal enemies.”
Before the legislation becomes law, it must go through two more readings in the Russian Parliament and be signed by President Putin, who is expected to support it.
For further information, please see:
Human Rights Watch – The Kremlin May Call It Treason – 28 September 2012
Bellona – Russian Parliament Votes in First Reading to Expand Treason Laws – Casting a Darker Shadow on the Future of NGOs – 24 September 2012
The Moscow Times – Treason Bill Gains Momentum – 23 September 2012
The New York Times – Russia Moves to Broaden Definition of High Treason – 21 September 2012
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty – New Russian Bill Would Widen Definition of Treason – 21 September 2012