A Russian law that expands on the meaning of high treason came into effect Wednesday in a move that has alarmed members of the opposition and human rights groups.
The definition of high treason now includes working with international organizations that the government deems threatening to Russia’s security. According to the Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the official government newspaper, the maximum penalty for high treason is 20 years in prison.
Opponents say the law is yet another piece of legislation designed to silence dissent, and eliminate foreign influence in Russia. Earlier this year, a law passed classifying foreign nongovernmental organizations as “foreign agents.” On Nov. 1, a law went into effect to block websites deemed inappropriate by the Russian government; although this legislation was intended to target websites harmful to children, free speech advocates say the vague wording of the bill could be misused to block opposition sites.
“Russians are afraid—and for good reason,” wrote David J. Kramer, the head of Freedom House, and Freedom House’s Eurasian Programs Director Susan Corke in a joint opinion piece published in the Moscow Times. “Almost any conversation between Russian citizens and representatives of foreign organizations on human rights issues could now be construed by the courts as treasonous.”
Putin signed the treason law Tuesday, a day after telling human rights groups that it would go through a review process. Liliya Shibanova, member of the newly formed Kremlin human rights council, criticized Putin for putting the law into effect without further review.
“I believe this law is very dangerous,” she told Russian state-run news agency RIA Novosti Wednesday. “If, for example, I pass on information about alleged poll violations to a foreign journalist, this could be considered espionage.”
Before Shibanova joined the human rights council formed earlier this week, she was the head of an electoral watchdog group that often clashed with the Kremlin.
According to the Gazeta, “Even the official contract work with foreign civil organizations can be recognized as criminal, if the investigation proves that these structures acted against the state.”
When the treason law was proposed earlier this year, it drew condemnation from human rights groups, the U.S. State Department, and other groups.
Kramer and Corke call the law part of a series of moves meant to tighten Putin’s grip on the nation.
“In just the six months since he reseated himself as president, Vladimir Putin has been busy creating a legislative framework that might make [former Soviet leader Vladimir] Lenin proud,” they wrote.
Putin, they said, is establishing a system in which foreigners are classified as enemies, and Russians traitors for working with them.
Kramer and Corke cited the example of Ivan Moseyev, who was described by the Times of London as a writer of fairytales and a cultural anthropologist. Moseyev was charged with treason earlier this week for fomenting discord in the northwestern Arkhangelsk region during his studies.
Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Putin’s government, told the ITAR-TASS news agency that there might be adjustments to the law.
He told ITAR-TASS, “If some problems or aspects restrict the rights or freedom of citizens, [it] will be identified in the implementation of the law.”
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