By Madeline Schiesser
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe
MOSCOW, Russia – On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin, sitting before his newly expanded Human Rights Council, promised to review a new bill expanding the definition of treason, which potentially threatens anyone working for a foreign or international organization, in order to avoid overly broad interpretations of treason. However, the following day he signed the bill into law and the legislation went into effect on Wednesday.
Under the new law, which amends Article 151 of the Criminal Code, it is possible to be convicted of treason for passing state secrets to any foreign or international organization. Furthermore, even if no secrets are passed, merely providing “other assistance” believed to be “directed against Russia’s security” may trigger a treason charge. Even receiving secret information with no intention to use it carries the potential of being a treasonous act.
Unintentional acts of treason carry a fine of between £3,700 – £9,900, or imprisonment of up to four years. Willing treason carries a prison sentence of up to eight years.
The bill has been gaining steam in the Russian parliament for some time (see Legislation Expanding Treason Definition in Russia Could Criminalize Foreign Funded Organizations for further background information). On October 23, the Duma passed it with only 2 out of 375 adverse votes. On October 31, in the Federation Council, 138 out of 166, with 2 abstaining voted for the bill.
Human rights groups have rallied against expanding the definition of treason, a move they see as motivated by a desire to distance Russians from Western non-governmental organizations, more specifically NGOs, to the detriment groups such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. They further fear that between a lack of clarity and its criminalization of the unsuspecting, courts will use the legislation to convict, for example, those opposed to the government or irritate authorities.
Initially on Monday, Putin expressed a “read[iness] to return” to the amendments to look at them more “carefully.” He seemed specifically concerned with making sure that “[t]here shouldn’t be any broader definition of state treason, [and] it shouldn’t address issues that have nothing to do with the instance of state treason.”
However, on Wednesday, his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, explained to reporters that Putin actually meant that amendments to the bill could be adjusted if “problem areas” were to arise.
Lyudmila Alexeyeva, 85, former Soviet dissident and veteran human rights activist, expressed her concern that the legislation is a step back for Russia: “It’s an attempt to return not just to Soviet times but to the Stalin era, when any conversation with a foreigner was seen as a potential threat to the state.”
Yabloko opposition leader party, Sergei Mitrokhin, explained: “Anyone can be charged under the new bill – the average activist as well as a Federal civil servant disliked by the government.” He further charged that “[t]he Russian secret service is interested in having a legal basis for arresting dissidents or people who are simply inconvenient. Charges can be brought against any organisation or person deemed to be dangerous. The fact that the bill has been passed is yet another indication of the appearance of totalitarian tendencies in Russian politics.”
For further information, please see:
The Independent – Postcard from… Moscow – 15 November 2012
The Independent – Russia’s Broadened Treason Law Denounced as Stalinist – 15 November 2012
BBC News – Russia Treason: Putin Approves Sweeping New Law – 14 November 2012
The Moscow Times – Treason Law Expanded Despite Putin’s Pledge – 14 November 2012
RFE/RL – Controversial Russian Treason Law Comes into Force – 14 November 2012
The Telegraph – Vladimir Putin Signals Willingness to Review Russian Treason Bill – 13 November 2012