Russian NGOs in panic mode over proposed 'high treason' law
Russia's new definition of high treason, which is likely to pass, could apply to any behavior that undermines 'constitutional order, sovereignty, and territorial and state integrity' in authorities' eyes.
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But Veronika Marchenko, head of Mothers' Right, a charity organization that provides legal aid and other support to families of Russian military conscripts who die in service – and which often finds itself in friction with the authorities – says she can see how these new rules will cast a chill over much of Russia's active civil society.Skip to next paragraph
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"We're not political at all, and we do not try to influence public opinion," she says. [Editor's note: The original version misquoted Ms. Marchenko.]
"Many NGOs, like ours, became involved in complicated social problems long before the state ever recognized the existence of those problems. We tackled burning issues, raised public consciousness about them, and people came to us for help that they could find nowhere else.... Yes, we attracted foreign funding – because there was very little to be found in Russia – and we paid taxes to the state, created jobs, and filled needs that were crying out to be met," Ms. Marchenko says.
"Now these people in the Duma are going to judge who's an 'agent' and a 'traitor'? They are pushing this country into the past, even into the middle ages," she adds.
'Meant to create an atmosphere of fear'
Yury Schmidt, one of Russia's best-known defense lawyers, says the Duma is crossing a Rubicon with these new treason amendments, beyond which Russia will have to abandon all claims to be a democratic state. He says the current move has to be considered in the context of a spate of draconian legislation passed by parliament since Mr. Putin began his third term last May, including a tough law on public protests, the NGO law, harsh new penalties for "defamation," and an Internet law that enables authorities to create a blacklist of websites that can be summarily shut down.
"I think these laws are intended not so much to prosecute particular individuals as they are meant to create an atmosphere of fear in the whole society," says Mr. Schmidt.
"They want to go back to a time when people were afraid to go out to a public meeting, or to give their real name to a journalist, for fear of being charged with slander or treason," he adds.
Lyudmilla Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Russia's oldest human rights watchdog, says her organization will never accept the "foreign agent" label and adds that she doesn't believe the current crackdown is sustainable.
"The authorities can go on with this course for some time, but not for long," she says.
"These actions are a dead-end that will block Russia's development as a modern country. The further they go down this road, the narrower it becomes, and a political explosion grows ever more likely," she adds.
Another bill submitted to the Duma this week, "on protection of the religious feelings of the citizens of Russia," will effectively criminalize blasphemy. Critics say this is probably an effort to strengthen the Kremlin's hand in reaction to the controversial summer trial and sentencing of the three members of the band Pussy Riot, who were charged with desecrating an Orthodox altar with an obscene anti-Putin "punk prayer."
Earlier this month the Duma expelled one of the body's few dissenting deputies, Gennady Gudkov, and this week deprived another, Ilya Ponomaryov, of his right to vote for a month.
"The Duma has no independent minds anymore," says Mr. Ponomaryov.
"The United Russia majority is doing only what Putin wants. And they never stop surprising me. When I think something is too unreasonable to consider, they go ahead and do it. Over and over again," he adds.