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Draconian Law Rammed Through Russian Parliament

Outrageous Provisions to Curb Speech, Privacy, Freedom of Conscience

Published in: The Huffington Post

UPDATE: On July 7, 2016, President Putin signed the Yarovaya bill into law.

UPDATE (June 24, 2016): The revised bill was finally published on the morning of June 24, the day of the voting. The lawmakers did eliminate the provisions on stripping Russian nationals of their citizenship. The other deeply problematic draft amendments described below remained practically unchanged. At around 12.30 pm the State Duma of the Russian Federation passed the "Yarovaya Law."

On June 24, its very last day in session before the summer break and the September parliamentary election, the lower chamber of Russia’s parliament is planning a final vote – without any meaningful debate or scrutiny – on a set of legislative amendments that severely undermine freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, and the right to privacy – all allegedly in the name of protecting the public from terrorism and extremists, put all really in the service of government control. The draft amendments – called the “Yarovaya Law,” after their key author, Irina Yarovaya, a leading member of the ruling “United Russia” party – included numerous deeply disturbing provisions.

Foremost among them would have enabled the government to strip Russian nationals of their citizenship if they served in foreign armed forces, worked for an “international organization” in whose creation Russia did not take part (whatever that means) or were found guilty of terrorism and extremist crimes. These crimes included, for example, incitement to hostility against an ethnic, social or religious group – a deeply problematic article of Russia’s criminal code often misused and abused by the authorities with the aim of stifling dissent.

It is this “stripping of citizenship” amendment that caused a staggering media outcry when the version of the bill that would be put to the final round of voting was published on the State Duma’s website earlier this week. And no wonder. The Russian Constitution stipulates that, “A Russian Federation national cannot be stripped of his citizenship” – with no exceptions.

The promoters of the bill argued that the provision applied only to those who have a second citizenship or “were in a position to acquire” another citizenship. But their attempts at justification didn’t make it more constitutional or less incoherent.

Heated discussions around this scandalous amendment on the other hand diverted media and public attention from other extremely worrying provisions of the Yarovaya Law that require serious debate and evaluation for their compliance with basic human rights protections. They include:

- Requiring cellular and Internet providers to store all communications data in full for six months and all metadata for three years in the interests of the security services (who cares about the costs, not to mention the right to privacy);

- Making cryptographic backdoors mandatory in all messaging applications (who cares if WhatsApp and many others don’t even hold encryption keys… not to mention the right to privacy);

- Banning proselytizing, preaching, praying, or disseminating religious materials outside of “specially designated places,” like officially recognized religion institutions (who cares about freedom of conscience); and

- Reviving the infamous Soviet norm on criminal liability for failure to report to law enforcement authorities that someone else “has been planning, is perpetrating, or has perpetrated” certain types of crime, and yes,  just like in the Soviet times, it could mean that a priest, for example, will be under obligation to report on what he hears during confession. At the same time, it’s not clear what “planning” stands for or what level of knowledge needs to be proved to hold a person liable.

On the evening of June 22, the final draft of the Yarovaya Law suddenly disappeared from the Duma’s website. At around noon today, June 23, TASS, a pro-Kremlin wire service, reported that the bill is undergoing last minute revisions and that the provision on stripping Russian nationals of their citizenship has been removed. TASS supposedly has a copy of the latest draft – but has not published it. So, with less than 24 hours before the final voting on the bill, we really don’t have a clue about what got scrapped, changed, or added.

It is hard to avoid the impression that the alleged removal of the bill’s most scandalous provision may have been specially designed to have the public breathe a sigh of relief and skim over the fact that even with some improvements, the Yarovaya Law will still severely curb people’s right to exercise free expression and other fundamental freedoms in Russia.

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