Russia's parliament votes to expand definition of high treason

Reuters News

10/23/2012 11:44:31 AM - Reuters News

By Gabriela Baczynska

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's parliament on Tuesday voted to expand the country's definition of high treason in a move that critics said meant any Russian citizen who had contacts with a foreigner could be accused of trying to undermine the state.

The proposed changes - that still need to be approved by the upper house of parliament and President Vladimir Putin before they become law - redefine high treason to include "granting financial, technical, consulting or other help" to those seeking to damage Russia's security, including its "constitutional system, sovereignty, territorial and state integrity."

The vote follows Putin's return to the presidency in May which was preceded by the biggest anti-Putin protests of his 12-year rule. The Kremlin has pushed a raft of laws through parliament since May that opposition politicians and activists have described as a tough crackdown on dissent.

The parliament's lower chamber, or Duma, voted 375-2 to expand the definitions of high treason and espionage and to introduce prison terms of up to eight years for illegally obtaining secret state information.

The opposition Just Russia party said it opposed the changes, saying such a wide definition of high treason meant "almost any Russian citizen with any contacts with any foreigner" could be accused of betraying the state.

Rights activists have warned that the law could be used to sanction anyone who incurs the wrath of the authorities.

"This law is designed for arbitrary interpretation," said Alexander Cherkasov, an activist at the rights group Memorial.

"Imagine they will start taking all this seriously and apply all these laws to everybody. This would mean writing off all social and political life as well as international ties."

Recently approved legislation hikes fines for protesters and forces foreign-sponsored non-governmental organizations to register as "foreign agents", a term echoing the Cold War era.

Russia's Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin, who was originally appointed by Putin, sided with the treason bill's critics, saying it contradicted international law and Russia's constitution by choosing a definition that was too broad to fairly determine a person's guilt.

The proposal also adds multinational organizations to a list of bodies that could benefit from state secrets. Previously, the list had only named the governments and organizations of foreign states.

"In obtaining information constituting a state secret in regard to the Russian Federation various international organizations may act in their own interests or for the benefit of secret services of various foreign countries," a document explaining the proposed changes read.

It also mentioned unspecified attempts by various international organizations to obtain Russia's state secrets "by illegal means".

Moscow ordered the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to close at the start of this month, accusing Washington of using its international aid mission in Russia to meddle in Russian politics and influence elections.

(Editing by Andrew Osborn)