A few days after promising to review treason law, Russian president Vladimir Putin (photo, from dailymail.co.uk) has signed it. The law which expands the definition of treason went into effect on Wednesday.
According to critics this new law may be used to stifle dissent.
In the previous law, high treason was described as espionage or other assistance to a foreign state which damages Russia’s external security. But in the new law the definition is widened as the word “external” disappears.
Therefore providing help or advice to a foreign state or giving information to an international or foreign organisation could fall under the new law.
According to rights advocates the definition is so broad that the law could be used to sweep up all inconvenient figures.
“I believe this law is very dangerous,” said human rights council member Liliya Shibanova, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency. She is also the head of Golos, the only independent elections watchdog group in Russia.
“If, for example, I pass on information about alleged poll violations to a foreign journalist, this could be considered espionage,” she explained.
“It’s very broad and it’s very dangerous,” Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division, told the AP news agency.
While it is unknown yet how vigorously the bill will be enforced by the country’s authorities, Mrs Denber says it recreates a “sense of paranoia and suspicion and uneasiness about foreigners”.
Tamara Morshchakova, a former Constitutional Court judge, told the presidential rights council meeting on Monday that the new law is so broad the FSB no longer needs to provide proof that a suspect inflicted actual damage to the nation’s security.
“Their goal was simple: We have few traitors, it’s difficult to prove their guilt, so it’s necessary to expand it,” Mrs Morshchakova said.
“Now they don’t have to prove it any more. An opinion of law enforcement agencies would suffice.”
The Federal Security Service, the main KGB successor agency, drafted the treason law.
While the maximum punishment for high treason stays 20 years in prison, the new law says that Russians who have obtained state secrets can now be jailed for up to four years, even if they have not shared the secrets.
And if those secrets are obtained with the help of special surveillance equipment they can be jailed for up to eight years.
The new clause will protect better confidential information than the previous one which was passed in the 1960s.
“Tactics and methods of foreign special services have changed, becoming more subtle and disguised as legitimate actions,” the spy agency said.
“Claims about a possible twist of spy mania in connection with the law’s passage are ungrounded and based exclusively on emotions.”
The revised treason law first surfaced in 2008, but then-President Dmitry Medvedev quickly shelved it following an outburst of public criticism.
Earlier this week the definition of treason re-emerged when it was announced that the prison sentence of a physicist convicted in 2004 of spying for China would be reduced.
Valentin Danilov was condemned to 14-year sentence, which was cut by three years on Tuesday, on grounds of good behaviour and the state of his health.
He is due to be released on parole within nine days.
Mr Danilov was first arrested in 2001 and admitted selling information about satellite technology to a Chinese company, although he said that public sources already had access to the information.
His arrest was seen by Human rights campaigners as an attempt to intimidate academics with ties to other countries.