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Originally published October 31, 2012 at 9:58 PM | Page modified November 1, 2012 at 4:39 PM

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Russian lawmakers expand definition of treason, espionage

The bill offers Russian officials wide latitude for interpretation and could undercut the development of democracy in Russia, said Mikhail Fedotov, head of the Presidential Council of Civic Society and Human Rights.

Los Angeles Times

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The ghost of Stalin is alive and well. MORE
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MOSCOW — The upper house of Russia's Parliament on Wednesday voted to broaden the definition of espionage and high treason, continuing what many activists view as a crackdown on dissent.

The legislation, which will become law if signed by President Vladimir Putin, expands the definition of espionage and high treason to encompass "the rendering of financial, material-technical or other assistance to a foreign state, international or other organization or their representatives in the activities directed against the security of the Russian Federation."

The bill was approved by 138 of the 139 senators present in the Federal Council, the parliament's upper house.

The bill — submitted by the Federal Security Service, the successor of the Soviet KGB — offers officials wide latitude for interpretation and could undercut the development of democracy in Russia, said Mikhail Fedotov, head of the Presidential Council of Civic Society and Human Rights.

"If approached literally, the bill creates totally unlimited possibilities of finding high treason in any action," Fedotov said in an interview Wednesday. "If a passer-by asks me in a Moscow street for directions to the Kremlin and duly gets them from me and later turns out to be a member of an organization working against our national security, I will automatically become a person guilty of high treason."

Fedotov complained that his council's warnings were not heeded by the lawmakers in the Federal Council and the Duma, the lower house of parliament, which previously approved the measure.

Putin is widely expected to sign the legislation.

The bill follows the chain of recent legislation that curbed the holding of mass rallies, proclaimed foreign-sponsored nongovernmental organizations "foreign agents" and revived the charge of slander to apply pressure on mass media.

Andrei Klishas, head of the upper house's committee on constitutional law, legal issues and civic society development, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. He wrote in the committee's assessment that "the bill will serve the improvement of criminal law in the sphere of protecting the state secrets from criminal encroachment and will enhance the efficiency of upholding the security of the Russian Federation."

The lawmakers simply agreed to oblige the Federal Security Service and make its work of catching spies easier and more cost-efficient, said Kremlin adviser Sergei Markov.

"Back in the early '90s, after dumping the communist theory for good, we in the new democratic Russia thought that now that we share peace, friendship and chewing gum with the West no one will try to bring us down anymore," he said in an interview Wednesday. "But we were wrong."

"Our security services are still struggling against numerous spies but often have a hard time bringing them to justice bridled by legal limitations," added Markov, a vice president of the Russian Plekhanov University of Economics. "Up to now it was easy for the Federal Security Service to catch spies but increasingly difficult to gather enough evidence to implicate them in a crime."

Markov said the bill is not aimed to suppress the opposition and dissent because "it makes no sense to accuse them of spy activities unless they are really guilty."

Former lawmaker Gennady Gudkov noted that legislators in what he called "the Kremlin's pocket parliament" continue to approve one bill after another in a government strategy to curb the growing protest movement and reduce foreign influence in Russia, an effort he dismissed as shortsighted.

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