MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia introduced a new law broadening the definition of treason on Wednesday, alarming opponents who say Vladimir Putin will use it to silence his critics and that almost anyone in contact with foreigners will be at risk.
The legislation allows Russians representing international organizations to be charged with treason, as well as those working for foreign states and bodies, and expands the range of actions that can be considered treasonous.
Putin signed the law on Tuesday and it took effect on Wednesday when it was published in the official gazette, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, despite a promise by the president on Monday that he would review it.
Political opponents and rights activists say the legislation is the latest in a series of laws intended to crack down on the opposition and reduce foreign influence since he returned to the Kremlin in May for a six-year third term.
“It’s an attempt to return not just to Soviet times but to the Stalin era, when any conversation with a foreigner was seen as a potential threat to the state,” said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, 85, a former Soviet dissident and veteran human rights activist.
She said it would probably be used selectively against Kremlin critics and others “who irritate the authorities”.
Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst sympathetic with anti-Putin protests this year, said the motivation behind the law was that “the state is more important than its citizens, so there must be as much control over citizens as possible”.
The law was backed by the Federal Security Service (FSB), the main successor of the Soviet KGB, and landed on the desk of longtime KGB officer Putin after being approved by both houses of parliament in the space of nine days last month.
The FSB, in a rare public comment, was quoted by state-run news agency Itar-Tass as saying the law had been updated after being unchanged since the 1960s because “foreign intelligence agencies’ methods and tactics for gathering information have changed”.
Putin whipped up anti-U.S. sentiment during his campaign for the March presidential election, and Russian officials have said the law is needed to help prevent foreign governments using organizations in Russia to gather state secrets.
“Citizens recruited by international organizations acting against the country’s interests will also be considered traitors”, Rossiyskaya Gazeta said in a commentary on its website.
Putin has frequently accused Western nations of seeking to undermine Russia’s security and weaken the nuclear-armed nation, and has suggested they use non-governmental organizations to do so.
Moscow ordered the U.S. Agency for International Development to cease its Russian operations in October, accusing it of seeking to influence elections.
In July, Putin signed a law requiring foreign-funded NGOs deemed to be engaging in political activity to register as “foreign agents”, and critics say other legislation is also aimed at silencing opponents.
The United States and the European Union have criticized the laws, and expressed concern about criminal charges laid against several opposition leaders in the last few months.
During his election campaign, Putin faced protests which at times drew tens of thousands of people into Moscow’s streets, and he accused the United States of whipping up demonstrations against his rule.
The maximum sentence for high treason remains 20 years, but the legislation signed by Putin also introduced prison terms of up to eight years for Russians acquiring state secrets in certain ways even if they are not passed on to foreigners.
It broadened the spectrum of actions that can attract treason charges to include giving “financial, material, technical, consultative or other aid” to a government or organization deemed to be seeking to undermine Russian security.
Those changes, as well as the removal of the stipulation that actions must be aimed against Russia’s “external” security to be considered treasonous, have raised concerns the law could be applied broadly to punish government opponents.
At a meeting of his human rights council on Monday, Putin listened to a retired Constitutional Court judge’s concerns about the legislation, which she said did not require authorities to prove a suspect damaged state security.
But although Putin said he would look again at the law, his spokesman said he had signed it a day later.
“It’s not the first time Putin has said the right words while slowly tightening the screws,” Alexeyeva said.
Reporting by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya, Writing by Steve Gutterman, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Giles Elgood