Russian bill pits free speech against national security

The proposed law would give authorities wide latitude to ban 'extremists.'

A new draft law that will enable authorities to ban any organization deemed "extremist" is being rushed through the Duma.

The law – proponents argue – is needed to combat the explosive rise of violent acts, such as attacks on nonwhite foreigners by skinheads, an anti-Semitic bombing, and a downtown Moscow rampage by flag-waving soccer fans.

"People thought Hitler was just a freak, until it was too late," says Boris Reznik, a deputy with the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party. "We need to take action, urgently."

But the law has both left- and right-wing oppositionists fearful that the Kremlin is preparing a crackdown on all independent political activity.

The bill sailed through its first reading June 6 with a big majority in the pro-Kremlin Duma, and was hurried through its second reading yesterday. The third and final reading is expected shortly under an "emergency" parliamentary push ordered by President Vladimir Putin to get vital legislation adopted by summer's end.

The draft law extends the definition of extremism to cover potentially almost any nongovernmental political or religious activity, opponents say. "We're in favor of fighting fascism, racism, and ethnic chauvinism, but these are all included in existing laws," says Tamara Pletneva, a Communist Party deputy. "The goal here is to silence all opposition."

Extremism defined

Under the bill, extremism is defined as activity aimed at overthrowing the existing order, or inciting racial or ethnic hatred, but it also includes "hampering the legitimate work of authorities."

If passed, authorities will have the right to suspend any party or nongovernmental organization whose members are accused of extremism. Courts will be empowered to permanently ban such groups. Broadcasters, newspapers, and Internet sites charged with disseminating extremist ideas also can be shut down. And the bill calls for creation of a new federal commission to collect information on suspected extremists.

The key protective clause in the draft says that activities that "advocate legitimate rights and freedoms" cannot be construed as extremism, as long as they are carried out within the law.

Critics say all that's necessary is for Russia's existing laws to be implemented more effectively. They point out, for example, that only 120 police were on hand to supervise some 8,000 juiced-up soccer fans watching a June 9 World Cup game on a giant screen near the Kremlin. It took hours for police to mobilize and contain the subsequent riot.

"There is no doubt about whom the authorities consider extremists," says Maxim Kuchinsky, a leader of Rainbow Protectors, a left-wing environmental group. "Not racists or nationalists, but those who are trying to build an independent civil society in Russia."

Mr. Kuchinsky was one of 200 antiglobalists who attempted to stage a peaceful rally on Moscow's Pushkin Square on May 28. About 2,000 riot police quickly closed in, arresting 27 protesters and dispersing the rest. Kuchinsky says they had obtained a legal permit, but it was canceled at the last moment because the demonstration "interfered with the work of city authorities."

"The police got ahead of themselves, Kuchinsky says. "It's not legal to ban a meeting on those grounds yet, but under the new law it will be."

Case study

Another case in point, critics say, is the discovery of two booby-trapped road signs near Moscow painted with anti-Semitic slogans in as many weeks. One of them, which read "Death to Yids!" exploded on May 27, seriously injuring a woman who had been trying to remove it. The district police chief in charge of the investigation, Nikolai Vagin, was subsequently quoted by the English-language Moscow Times as saying he saw nothing anti-Semitic in the sign: "I think the slogan ... is not a call to ethnic hatred," Mr. Vagin said. "In our country the word 'Yid' gets applied to all sorts of people."

Experts say it is unlikely that the pro-Kremlin Duma majority will force any key amendments to narrow the scope for potential abuses in the law. "The question is, in practice, will this legislation tighten the noose around those who would overthrow the government by force, or will it just be used against anyone who criticizes?" says Alexander Konovalov, director of the independent Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow. "I fear it'll be the latter."

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