Russian Government's Proposed Redefinition of Treason Would Restore 'Stalinist Norms,' Rights Activists Say
by Paul Goble

On-going series: Crisis in the Caucasus - 2008
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Vienna, December 16 - The Russian government is seeking to have the Duma broaden the legal definitions of treason and espionage in ways that, if as expected the legislators go along, could lead to "the restoration of the norms of Stalinist times when anti-Soviet activity was considered a criminal act," according to a leading Russian human rights activist.

That is the conclusion Lev Levinson of the Moscow Human Rights Institute offered on the basis of his examination of the draft legislation the government introduced on Friday modifying paragraphs 275 (state treason) and 276 (espionage) of the Russian Federation criminal code

The new language, he notes, defines treason as including "actions committed by a citizen of the RF to the harm of the security of the RF: the provision of consultative or other help to a foreign state, international or foreign organization or their representatives in activities directed against the security of the RF, including its constitutional system [and] sovereignty."

The government argued that this change was necessary, Levinson continues, because under existing legislation, Russian prosecutors need to prove intent, something often difficult to do especially if the accused has a good attorney, while the new language will require them only to show that a particular action occurred.

But the new legislation contains so many terms that are so poorly defined that the authorities can choose to apply them to almost anyone's actions if they so choose. "Security" has many meanings, Levinson points out, as do "sovereignty," "constitutional order," and "international organizations," many of which have branches legally registered in Russia.

For a complete, line-by-line comparison and a detailed discussion of the history of this question, see

Other commentators agree. Specialists at the Irkutsk portal, for example, argue that "with the adoption of these amendments, any contact with international organizations if it is noted by law enforcement organs can be interpreted as state treason, even if nothing secret is involved

And they point out that even the 1926 Soviet criminal code's notorious Article 58, under which so many people were sent to the GULAG or to their deaths in Stalin's time, did not introduce a punishment for otherwise innocent contacts with international organizations represented in Russia.

Moscow attorney Yury Shmidt extends that argument, suggesting that what the Russian government has proposed is "extremely dangerous" and "crudely contradicts the Constitution [by] sharply limiting freedom of speech and the right to information and contradicting mass of federal laws"

Unfortunately, he says, the government if it is able to push this law through will simply change the other legislation to bring it into line, creating a situation in which Russians will have far fewer freedoms in the future than they do at the present time and opening the door to new attacks on other freedoms as well.

And the well-known Moscow lawyer sums up his critique by saying that the government's proposal is "extremely reactionary and is directed in [his] opinion not toward a real defense of state secrets but toward a limitation on freedom of information," a freedom on which all other freedoms and democracy itself rest.

Unfortunately, it appears likely that the government will get its way. Not only did the pro-government United Russia majority approve on third reading legislation restricting the right of trial by jury for those charged with crimes against the state, but United Russia leaders in the Duma have indicated they support the new measure.

Opposition deputies, like the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), oppose it, but they do not have the votes to stop it. And in an indication of the way things are going, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that he has named a hitherto nameless peak in the North Caucasus in honor of counter-intelligence officers.

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