(Moscow) – Russia’s parliament on October 23, 2012, adopted a new law on treason that directly threatens the exercise of protected fundamental rights, Human Rights Watch said today. The Council of Europe should call on its Venice Commission to examine the law’s compatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Russia is a party. Human Rights Watch called on President Vladimir Putin not to sign the law.
The law was adopted in an expedited time frame, with the State Duma, the lower chamber of Russia’s parliament, combining its second and third readings. The law, amending the criminal code, was introduced by the Federal Security Bureau (FSB, the KGB’s successor). Under the new law, the definition of treason includes “providing financial, technical, advisory or other assistance to a foreign state or international organization . . . directed at harming Russia's security.”
“This overly broad and vague definition seems deliberately designed to make people think twice before doing international human rights advocacy,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe director at Human Rights Watch. “In Russia’s new political climate, it’s reasonable to believe the authorities’ threshold for interpreting what ‘harming Russia’s security’ means will be quite low.”
In its explanatory memorandum that accompanied the draft law, the FSB justified the amendment by referring to the “active use by foreign secret services” of foreign organizations, governmental and nongovernmental, to harm Russia’s security.
In July the Duma adopted a law that requires Russia’s civil society groups that do advocacy work and accept foreign funding to register as foreign agents, which Human Rights Watch said would have the result of demonizing these groups as “foreign spies” in the public eye.
Russia’s Presidential Council on the Development of Civil Society and Rule of Law criticized an earlier draft of the treason law for setting out an overbroad definition of treason that would be open to abuse.
“Many Russian groups – like their counterparts in other countries – meet frequently and openly with foreign officials to talk about the human rights situation in Russia,” Williamson said. “Is this something the government will label ‘harmful’ to Russia’s security?”
The Presidential Council’s statement emphasized that the law could apply to information shared with intergovernmental organizations of which Russia is a member, such as the United Nations and the Council of Europe.
The law also makes it a crime to pass on to foreign and international organizations information garnered from open sources if the organization receiving the information plans to use it to harm Russia’s national security interests.
The law can be used by law enforcement and security services to justify close surveillance of NGOs and activists in the name of an inquiry, and could also be used to open a criminal case for alleged treason as a way of paralyzing a critic or political adversary, Human Rights Watch said.
The law’s adoption comes amid a broad crackdown on Russia’s civil society that has been carried out since Putin’s return to the Kremlin. Laws rammed through the Duma in the summer imposed new restrictions on public assemblies, re-criminalized libel, and imposed new restrictions on internet content. The adoption of several of these laws, like the treason law, was carried out with hitherto unprecedented speed.
Public smear campaigns on state television have targeted prominent political opposition figures. The authorities have thoroughly demonized Golos, an election monitoring group, conflating the work it does to monitor the vote with alleged support for the opposition.
“It’s important for the Council of Europe to analyze this law immediately to identify the various incompatibilities with Russia’s obligations under the European Convention,” Williamson said. “And it’s imperative for Russia’s international partners to take a sober look at what is happening in Russia today and not to stand by silently as Russia’s civil society is dismantled.”