Adding to fears that the Kremlin aims to stifle dissent, Russians now live under a new law expanding the definition of treason so broadly that critics say it could be used to call anyone who bucks the government a traitor.
The law took effect on Wednesday, just two days after Russian President Vladimir Putin told his human rights advisory council that he was ready to review it. His spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies on Wednesday that Putin would be willing to review the treason law if its implementation reveals “some problems or aspects restricting rights and freedoms.”
However, what Putin might consider a problem is unclear. His opponents say a series of measures enacted since Putin returned to the Kremlin in May for a third term show he is determined to suppress dissidents.
One measure imposes a huge increase in potential fines for unauthorized demonstrations, while another requires non-governmental organizations to register as foreign agents if they receive money from abroad and engage in political activity
After fraud-tainted parliamentary elections in December last year, an unprecedented wave of protest arose that boldly challenged his image as the strongman Russia needs to achieve stability and prosperity.
Under the new law, anyone who, without authorization, possesses information deemed a state secret could potentially be jailed for up to 20 years for espionage.
While the previous law described high treason as espionage or other assistance to a foreign state that damages Russia’s external security, the new legislation expands the definition by dropping the word “external.”
The definition is so broad that rights advocates say it could be used as a driftnet to sweep up all inconvenient figures.
“I believe this law is very dangerous,” human rights council member Liliya Shibanova said, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.
“If, for example, I pass on information about alleged poll violations to a foreign journalist, this could be considered espionage,” she said.
The law, which was drafted by the Russian Federal Security Service, known under its Russian acronym of FSB, also introduced a punishment of up to eight years for simply getting hold of state secrets illegally.
The FSB explained in a statement run by the ITAR-Tass news agency that the new clause better protects confidential information. It said the previous law, which dated back to the 1960s, failed to provide efficient deterrence against foreign spies.
Tamara Morshchakova, a former Constitutional Court judge, told the presidential rights council meeting on Monday that the new law is so broad the FSB no longer needs to provide proof that a suspect inflicted actual damage to the nation’s security.
“Their goal was simple: We have few traitors, it’s difficult to prove their guilt, so it’s necessary to expand it,” Morshchakova said.
“Now they don’t have to prove it any more. An opinion of law enforcement agencies would suffice,” she said.