Russian Push on Treason Raises Fears

The New York Times
December 21, 2008

MOSCOW — In a country where government critics already feel vulnerable, legislation to expand the definition of treason has inspired a new round of hand-wringing about how far the state will go to rein in dissenters and regulate Russians’ contact with foreigners.

Even certain conversations with a foreign reporter could be “considered treason under the new legislation,” contended Ernst I. Chyorny, the leader of a human rights group in Moscow, because they could be seen as “consultative” support to a foreign entity. And that, he says, could land a violator in prison for as long as 20 years.

As with existing law, the legislation would forbid actions considered detrimental to Russia’s security. But the legislation, if passed, would remove qualifiers that require such actions to be “hostile” and directed against the “external security” of Russia before they are considered illegal. In addition, it would prohibit Russians from passing certain information not only to other countries, but also to foreign nongovernment groups.

Many of those groups, which the Kremlin often accuses of fronting for spy agencies, have been among the most vocal critics of the government’s curtailment of media and civic freedoms and the consolidation of power under Vladimir V. Putin, Russia’s former president and now prime minister.

Taken together, critics say, the changes could further muddle what they say are already ambiguous espionage laws and perhaps — at worst — presage a return of the Soviet-era practice of prosecuting government critics as traitors. But it remains unclear if the bill will pass Parliament in its current form and, even then, whether and how the government would employ the rules — to crack down on dissent or merely as a warning to opponents not to go too far.

Gennadi V. Gudkov, a former intelligence officer who is a deputy chairman of the security committee in the lower house of Parliament, said some elements of the new legislation were unclear and could be amended during deliberations.

Government officials have defended the proposed changes, backed by Mr. Putin and his allies in Russia’s security services, saying they are needed to clarify and update current laws that have failed to keep pace with the law-dodging ingenuity of modern spies, who, officials say, increasingly work through foreign nongovernment organizations. The government became especially concerned about such groups because it is suspicious of their ties to the protagonists in the so-called “color revolutions” that toppled Kremlin-friendly governments in Georgia and Ukraine.

“Individual international organizations have repeatedly attempted to gain access to information classified as state secrets through illegal means,” said a statement posted to the government Web site, explaining the bill. “The proposed changes are intended to create a legal basis for holding criminally responsible individuals, who pass on information considered a state secret to international organizations in violation of the law.”

The new bill comes amid other legislative changes proposed recently that appear intended to strengthen the control of the authorities as Russia succumbs to the effects of the global financial crisis.

Some see the maneuvers as part of a strategy by Mr. Putin, a former officer in the K.G.B. and then director of its successor, the F.S.B., to further expand the authority of his former security service colleagues, who have come to dominate the government since he came to power as president in 2000.

“The secret police de facto captured the government a long time ago,” said Lev A. Ponomaryov, who leads the Moscow-based group For Human Rights. “Now they want to capture it de jure.”

Critics say changes in the treason law would be especially problematic in combination with other legislation passed last week that eliminates jury trials in treason cases. Under that bill, which hinges on the signature of the president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, the cases would be handled by judges who are beholden to the government for their jobs.

Even Russia’s Public Chamber, a civic group that includes many Kremlin-appointed members, has condemned that measure.

“The legislation is motivated by the interests of the security services, which seek to eliminate the need to investigate criminal cases without legal violations as well as the need to prove the guilt of suspects in a real contest with defense attorneys before courts that involve representatives of the people able to hand down not only guilty verdicts, but also acquittals,” the group said in a statement last week.

People on both sides of the debate about the latest legislation agree that the old laws on treason and espionage were too vague. But critics say the proposals could further endanger those who run afoul of the security services, including journalists and academics, especially scientists. Scientists have suffered the brunt of what critics have deemed “spy mania” by the security services in recent years, largely because their work often involves sharing information with foreign colleagues — something that was intensely regulated in the Soviet era.

At least a dozen scientists have been charged with espionage and several have been jailed since Mr. Putin took power. Prominent academics and human rights groups in Russia and abroad have accused security service officers of being overzealous and fabricating evidence in many of these cases.

In a rare embarrassment for the security services, investigators last year were forced to dismiss a case against two Siberian physicists, the brothers Igor and Oleg Minin, who were accused by the F.S.B. of revealing state secrets in a book, even though their manuscript had been cleared by their university as containing no classified materials.

Mr. Chyorny, whose human rights group has defended scientists at the European Court of Human Rights, said he feared that the new legislation would make it much more difficult to overcome such accusations.