Russian parliament passes Kremlin bill to vastly expand secret police powers

Publish date: August 2, 2010

NEW YORK – Russia’s president Dmirtry Medvedev last Thursday signed into law a bill that expands the powers of Russia’s FSB secret police, the KGB’s successor organisation, to warn people it believe pose a criminal threat in a move that has alarmed human rights activists.

The FSB can now officially warn and fine citizens against “creating the conditions” for crimes.

Rights groups in Russia, including Bellona, say the law will create circumstances for unmitigated intimidation of journalists, political dissenters, and environmentalists – or indeed anyone – a matter of whim in a new Russia.

“How can we comment on this? It is without doubt that the new law is not directed at the fight with terrorism, spies, murderers, etc. It is specifically directed at antagonising the opposition,” said Bellona’sAlexander Nikitin, head of Russia’s St. Petersburg office and who himself remains the only person to be acquitted of espionage charges brought against him by the FSB.

“In all likelihood they are preparing for the 2012 (presidential) elections,” when it is widely expected that former president, now prime minister and career KGB officer Vladimir Putin, will switch seats with Dmitry Medvedev, who was hand picked by Putin to take the presidential post and keep his seat warm.

Putin served two terms as president, but the Russian constitution makes no stipulation that he cannot run again. The Putin administration saw a vast expansion of the powers of the FSB.

The new FSB legislation further stipulates that anyone obstructing an FSB officer or refusing to obey a legal request made by an FSB officer faces either a fine or up to 15 days’ detention.

Human rights groups fear the FSB is being put above the law.

President Medvedev signed the amendments to the law on the Federal Security Service (FSB) after it passed through both houses of the largely pro-government parliament where it provoked unusually strong debate, according to the BBC.

The human rights-mined Sergei Mironov, the speaker of the upper house of Russian Parliament known as the Federation Council said the security services had quite enough power already without the new legislation.

Medvedev has created a complex picture of himself in relation to human rights during his tenure as president.

After human rights lawyer Sergei Markelov and reporter Anistasiya Baburova of Novaya Gazeta, Russia’s most strident opposition newspaper, were gunned down in a brazen midday shooting in Moscow, Mededev paid a personal visit to Novaya Gazeta to pass on his condolences.

During the same time, he revived the Presidential Council on Human Rights, a liaison organisation between the Kremlin and human rights groups, which was disbanded during the Putin’s reign. But even these overtures drew suspicion among Russia’s civil society sector.

According to Boris Pustintsev, diretor of St. Petersburg’s Citizens’ Watch, a rights watch dog who also serves on the board of the Environmental Rights Centre Bellona, Medvedev’s cosying up to opposition sectors was a political necessity as the country rode out an extreme financial crisis. Putsintseyev and others saw the shadow of Putin’s hand in these moves.

Indeed, at a news conference held after the signing of the new bill, Medevev seemed to jump back into line with Putin.

“Every country has a right to improve its legislation, including that related to the special services,” Medvedev told reporters, according to various Russian news agencies. It was Putin, however, who introduced the bill for the parliament’s consideration. But Medvedev took full credit for it a the news conference, held during a state visit to Germany last week.

Russian human rights organisations had urged President Medvedev not to sign the bill, arguing that its wording was too vague and open to abuse.

Fines and detentions for ‘thought crime’

The controversial bill, which passed its third parliamentary reading on last Thursday, empowers the FSB to issue official warnings to people judged to be laying the groundwork for a criminal act “against the country’s security.”

The law also establishes fines and detentions of up to 15 days for people seen as hindering the work of an FSB employee.

The final version is tamer than the original draft, which proposed the FSB could summon potential suspects to their office and even publish its warnings in the media. But it still has plenty of critics.

Specific concerns about the law

Of particular concern was the article of the new law granting the FSB the right to “warn officially an individual about the inadmissibility of actions that create the conditions for the commission of crimes.”

The article states that the FSB is free to use such measures with regard to such activities carried out by any physical persons or legal entities that have not yet exceeded the boundaries of law, but may, in the secret service’s view, represent a threat to Russia’s security. Private citizens will in such cases be issued “citations,” and as for legal entities, “special preventative measures” imply an “official warning” from the FSB.

The deadlines to comply with “official warnings” remain unclear in the bill. What is more troubling, so do potential reasons or substantiations for the FSB to issue such warnings – the probable cause that might warrant this measure. The language is considerably more precise on the responsibility placed on private citizens or organisations for actions that do not constitute violations of law.

According to the newly proposed language to be introduced into the Administrative Offence Code, “failure to comply with a lawful instruction or order by an officer of the FSB” will result in a fine of between RUR 500 ($16) and RUR 1,000 ($32) or an arrest of up to 15 days for citizens, a fine of between RUR 1,000 and RUR 3,000 ($96.5) for officials, and a fine or between RUR 10,000 ($322) and 50,000 ($1,609) for legal entities.

An explanatory memorandum attached to the bill states that “Certain mass media outlets, both print and electronic ones, openly facilitate in the shaping of negative processes in the spiritual domain, the establishment of a cult of individualism and violence, and the disbelief in the state’s ability to protect its citizens, essentially involving the youth in extremist activities.”

How exactly mass media are supposed to be doing this is anyone’s guess, but using their newly expanded license, anyone in the FSB will have all the power they need to make a journalist or editor obey their orders, just wielding the threat of a fine or a fifteen-day detention. Moreover, the FSB will have the authority to issue a halt order on publications they deem inadvisable, though such publications may not contain any materials whatsoever that would constitute state secrets.

Urging Medvedev to veto the bill, the Memorial human rights organisation told the BBC the power of the FSB had “long ago gone beyond reasonable bounds”, and that it was asking for powers more rightly held by prosecutors.

Memorial accused the FSB of seeking “preventative” powers like those used by the KGB to persecute dissidents.

Officially, the FSB says it’s focus has been on fighting domestic terrorism, particularly that emanating from Chechnya and other parts of the North Caucasus, but Bellona and other critics underscore that it has been used to intimidate legal opposition to the Kremlin.

But according to a bellona report last week on the new legislation there is no doubt as to what these measures are hoped to achieve. The law has nothing to do with combating terrorism or extremism, but everything to do with intensifying the state’s continuing attacks on independent thinking and political dissent and persecuting people involved in opposition politics.

These measures will obligingly help make the secret services even less transparent and less accountable than they already are and provide ample grounds for broad, if not arbitrary, interpretations of the notion of “extremist activities,” making all that more legitimate the already established practice of banning any “questionable” rallies, meetings, and pickets. In these circumstances, Putin’s bill will simply give the secret services an almost unlimited license for lawlessness and runaway abuse of power.

Public largely unaware of new legislation

The Kremlin says the legislation will contribute to the fight against extremism and help people steer clear of behaviour they may not even realize is illegal, such as participating in unsanctioned protest rallies.

Human rights defenders, however, say the legislation will put the KGB successor agency above the law and hand it Soviet-style powers to intimidate whoever it wants – especially reporters and political opponents – at will.

Overall, however, few Russians appear to be aware of the new legislation or its impact. A July 18-22 poll by the independent Levada polling agency showed that 67 percent of respondents nationwide had not even heard of the bill. Only 3 percent reported that they were “closely following” the debate, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.

Lev Gudkov, the head of the Levada centre, told RFE/RL that Russians are generally “evenly split” between those who oppose the FSB and those who value it as a protector of state interests.

“For the most part, that kind of positive sentiment is held by people who aren’t very well educated, those living in villages or towns with limited access to information and very dependent on state propaganda – meaning, from television,” Gudkov said. “Negative sentiments regarding the KGB and FSB are basically held by more educated and mature people. Their associations are those of mass repressions, terror, purges, executions, and the persecution of dissidents and opponents.”

Igor Korotchenko, editor of the journal “National Defense,” says he is a staunch supporter of passing stronger laws to defend the country against terrorist attack. But the new FSB law, he believes, will have little effect.

“I think that this law won’t help the fight against terrorism. Because the people planning and carrying out those acts are people who have put themselves on the path of a deliberate battle. So any warnings or threats directed at them will be absolutely ineffective,” he told RFE/RL. “Instead, I think the law will be to a large degree directed at blocking all kinds of forms of social protest.”

“I view them with a great deal of trepidation, because I agree with those who say that Russia is dangling from the Chekists’ (secret police members) hook,” said one man who spoke anonymously to RFE/RL in the far western city of Pskov, near St. Petersburg.

Another added that it was “disgusting” to be repeating a mistake of the Soviet past. “We went through all this in the ’70s and ’80s, when all of those in civil society working for human rights found themselves under the pressure of the KGB,” the man said. “And today we’re stepping on the same rakes.”

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