The EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton expressed concern yesterday (25 October) over Russia's recent adoption of a Cold War-style law, which could potentially imprison citizens in contact with foreigners for up to 20 years.
“The High Representative Catherine Ashton is concerned by the adoption of the Law on treason in the Russian State Duma on 23 October”, a press release issued by a spokesperson says.
“The new law would expand the scope for prosecution of and reduce the burden of proof for charges of treason and espionage," the statement continues. "The abstract definition of treason contained in the law will make it difficult to apply in a fair manner. It also potentially penalises contacts with foreign nationals with up to 20 years in prison.”
The bill – which has not yet been ratified by Russia's Upper House and President Putin – further restricts the disclosure of state secrets, toughens punishments for leaks, and widely expands the definition of high treason.
Espionage, disclosure, consultation
It describes high treason as “espionage, disclosure of state secrets, or any other assistance” to a foreign state or organisation to the detriment of Russia’s security. But the new bill also suggests expanding this definition to include “granting financial, technical, consulting or other help.”
The draft law adds “international organisations” to the list of possible recipients of such “assistance” from Russian citizens.
According to the Russian website of the TV channel Novosti, the new legislation was proposed by the Federal Security Service (FSB) – heir of the Soviet-era KGB, in which Putin served as a colonel.
The draft law was met with a storm of criticism from rights activists in Russia and abroad. Human Rights Watch said the bill directly threatened the exercise of protected fundamental rights, and urged Putin not to sign it into law.
Lev Ponomaryov, a veteran Russian human rights advocate, was quoted as saying that the proposed law would hang like a sword of Damocles over the country’s opposition. Almost any issue could be linked to 'security' as opposed to 'external security' in the current law, he explained.
The new bill follows a number of recent legislative and judicial moves in Moscow, which have alarmed EU policy-makers.
Scope for intimidation
“Taken together, these developments would limit the space for civil society development, and increase the scope for intimidation," the EU's response says. "We will be monitoring the implementation of this law closely.”
In a recent statement, Ashton made reference to legislation being pushed through the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, at “unconstitutional speed". She said that its aim was to “further reduce the available space for independent civil and political activity in the country”.
Ashton mentioned amendments signed by Putin restricting the scope for demonstrations, as well as arrests, fines and criminal charges pressed against opposition leaders.
In particular, Ashton singled out a new piece of legislation describing Russian NGOs which receive funding from abroad as “foreign agents”.
Europe and the United States condemned Russia over the two-year prison sentences handed down to three members of the Pussy Riot punk band. They were convicted on 17 August of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for performing a 'punk prayer' in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral in which they called on the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Putin.
Vladimir Putin triumphed in Russia's presidential election on 4 March, but his opponents refused to recognise the results and said they would press ahead with the biggest protests since he rose to power 12 years ago.
Putin had already served as president from 2000 to 2008 and remained Russia's dominant leader. He stepped aside in 2008 to make way for his ally, Dmitry Medvedev, because he was barred from a third presidential term by the constitution.
Putin served as prime minister in the interim. The two swapped places again this year.