MOSCOW, November 14 (Marc Bennetts, RIA Novosti) – A controversial law on state treason that critics fear could be used to stamp out political dissent came into force in Russia on Wednesday, two days after President Vladimir Putin told human rights workers he was ready to “review” it.
The law, initiated by the Federal Security Service (FSB), and signed by Putin on Tuesday, broadens the definition of treason in Russia’s Criminal Code to include activities that endanger Russia’s “constitutional order, sovereignty and territorial and state integrity.”
While supporters argue that the law is meant to eliminate any potential for arbitrary interpretation, critics allege its wording is so vague it could be used against almost anyone in contact with foreigners. The law targets those offering consultation or financial services to foreign individuals and organizations engaged in “activities directed against Russia’s security.”
The law makes the illegal possession of state secrets punishable by up to eight years in jail and/or fines of around $10,000. The maximum sentence for high treason remains 20 years, as in the previous version of the law.
Putin appeared to respond to criticism of the law on Monday when he told a meeting of Kremlin’s state council on human rights that he would “take a more attentive look” at it.
“Putin didn’t make any concrete promises,” Kremlin human rights council member Liliya Shibanova told RIA Novosti on Wednesday. “He said, ‘well, yes, maybe we should look at the format again’, but it was very vague. The media just presented it as ‘Putin promises to review treason bill.’”
“But I believe this law is very dangerous,” added Shibanova, who is also head of the independent election monitoring group Golos, frequently the target of Kremlin ire. “If, for example, I pass on information about alleged poll violations to a foreign journalist, this could be considered espionage.”
Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, confirmed on Wednesday the president was prepared to introduce amendments to the law if “there appear problem areas or certain aspects limiting the rights and freedoms of citizens.”
Public Chamber member and pro-Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov told RIA Novosti last month that the new legislation was necessary to prevent the sort of violence that marred the eve of Putin’s May 7 inauguration for a third presidential term.
“Russian officials have to react, meaning that if somebody violates the law it’s easier to stop him in the beginning than to wait until the situation becomes more dangerous,” he said.
The treason law is part of a slew of legislation that critics say are aimed at curtailing the kind of anti-Putin protests that broke out after last December’s disputed parliamentary polls.
Putin told the Kremlin rights council on Monday that controversial laws on protests, foreign-funded NGOs and internet controls were aimed at making Russia “effective and stable.”
"Everything that is taking place here is being done for a sole purpose – to make our country stable. Effective and stable," Putin said.
"It cannot be more stable if it is only based on the power of law enforcement and repressive agencies. It will be more stable if society is more collective, effective, responsible, if a bond is established between society, the citizen and the state," he added.