ussian lawmakers are under fire for adopting a tough new bill that opponents say will allow the Kremlin to jail its critics on charges of high treason.
The draft law, passed overwhelmingly by the State Duma on October 23, expands the definition of high treason to include "granting financial, technical, consulting, or other help" to those seeking to harm Russia's security, including its "constitutional order, sovereignty, and territorial and state integrity."
Opponents of the bill say the new definition means virtually any Russian citizen who has had contact with a foreigner could face up to eight years in jail for betraying the Russian state.
"It's so wide that it could target absolutely legal, lawful activities of nongovernment organizations, civic activists, journalists, and even businesspeople," says human rights lawyer Pavel Chikov, the president of Agora, a rights association that provides legal assistance to civic activists. "It outlaws any exchange of information with international organizations and representatives of foreign governments."
Rights activists warn that the bill -- which needs to be approved by the upper chamber of parliament and signed by President Vladimir Putin to become law -- could be used to prosecute anyone who runs afoul of the Kremlin.
Russia's rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, said such a broad definition of high treason would breach both Russia's constitution and international law.
Chikov says it would also give the Federal Security Service (FSB), the bill's author, more leeway to put dissidents on trial.
"In the past, only communications used for hostile purposes against the Russian Federation were considered high treason. But this was difficult for them to prove," the lawyer says. "Now, to simplify their task, the term 'threat to security' is being introduced to replace the term "hostility.''Threat to security' is a lot easier to use and is also more subjective."
'A Return To The 1930s'
The draft law is widely seen as part of a recent Kremlin crackdown that has seen the jailing of political opponents and the adoption of restrictive new legislation, including laws dramatically hiking fines for protesters and forcing foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations to register as "foreign agents."
In a memorandum attached to the treason bill, the FSB refers to the "active use by foreign secret services" of foreign governmental and nongovernmental organizations to harm Russia's security.
Rights groups say the bill harks back to Soviet-era repressions. "This law is monstrous and takes us back to Soviet times," says veteran Russian rights campaigner Lev Ponomaryov. "All those who say that Russia was returning to the 1930s have now been proven right."
The draft law has also drawn condemnation abroad, with Human Rights Watch denouncing it as a scheme aimed at "paralyzing" critics or political rivals.
In a statement issued on October 24, the New York-based group said the treason bill "directly threatens the exercise of protected fundamental rights" and that its broad definition of treason was "open to abuse."
It urged Putin not to sign the law and called on the Council of Europe to examine its compatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights.
"It's imperative for Russia's international partners to take a sober look at what is happening in Russia today," said Human Rights Watch's Europe director, Hugh Williamson, "and not to stand by silently as Russia's civil society is dismantled."