Russian treason bill could target Kremlin critics

MOSCOW (AP) -- Under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, people who fraternized with foreigners or criticized the Kremlin were "enemies of the people" and sent to the gulag. Now there's new legislation backed by Vladimir Putin's government that human rights activists say could throw Russia back to the days of the Great Terror.

The legislation, outspoken government critic and rights activist Lev Ponomaryov charged Wednesday, creates "a base for a totalitarian state."

Government supporters and Kremlin-allied lawmakers said the bill - submitted to the Kremlin-friendly parliament last week - will tighten up current law. Supporters say prosecutors often have trouble gaining convictions because of ambiguities in the definition of state treason.

The bill would add non-governmental organizations based anywhere in the world that have an office in Russia to the list of banned recipients of state secrets. The government has repeatedly accused foreign spy agencies of using NGOs as a cover to foment dissent.

Critics warned the loose wording will give authorities ample leeway to prosecute those who cooperate with international rights groups.

Under current treason statutes, some NGOs are not considered "foreign organizations," meaning a person who passes a state secret to an NGO might not be considered a traitor.

Some of Russia's most prominent right activists, including Moscow Helsinki Group head Lyudmila Alexeyeva and Civic Assistance director Svetlana Gannushkina, said the bill in fact gives authorities the power to prosecute anyone deemed to have "harmed the security of the Russian Federation."

It is "legislation in the spirit of Stalin and Hitler," the activists said in a joint statement - legislation that "returns the Russian justice to the times of 1920-1950s."

During the 1930s, Stalin oversaw a sweeping crackdown that came to be known as the Great Terror. Millions were accused of being "enemies of the people," convicted by farcical courts based on hearsay and anonymous allegations, and executed or sent to the vast system of prison camps known as the gulag.

The legislation expands the definition of treason to include damaging Russia's "constitutional order," and "sovereignty or territorial integrity."

The activists believe each proposed addition cynically targets potential threats to the Kremlin, shattering what remains of civil society in Russia.

Activists said expanding the term "constitutional order," would effectively outlaw opposition protests. "Territorial integrity" would forbid anyone from calling for independence or perhaps autonomy, an issue of particular concern in the volatile North Caucasus where Chechnya is located.

The bill broadening the definition of state treason is the latest in a series of measures taken since Putin's rise to the presidency in 2000 that have systematically rolled back Russia's post-Soviet political freedoms.

Rights group say that rollback has shown no signs of stopping since Putin, a former director of the KGB's main successor agency, became prime minister and his protege, Dmitry Medvedev, assumed the presidency.

The legislation will likely to be quickly approved by parliament - which the Kremlin needs, Alexeyeva said, because of fears that the country's collapsing economy will spark mass unrest.

"The people ruling the government are afraid of the reaction of its citizens to their inability to cope with the crisis," she said.

In a separate development Wednesday, Russia's upper house of parliament passed legislation that would end jury trials for those facing charges of terrorism and treason. Instead, they would face a panel of judges.

The bill's authors say the change was necessary because they claim juries have acquitted many suspects despite strong incriminating evidence. Critics denounced the bill as a blow to democratic principles.

As president, the widely popular Putin oversaw a series of measures that tightened the Kremlin's control over Russia's political life and civil society. He backed legislation ending popular elections of regional governors and tightened rules for political parties.

The Kremlin also sharply restricted independent media, leaving just a few outspoken radio stations and newspapers with limited audience reach, and has curtailed the work of non-governmental groups.

Since taking over as president in March, Medvedev has called for fighting corruption and ending "legal nihilism" in the courts, but has made no indications that he would ease any of Putin's policies.

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