The Thugocracy Lands Another Punch
by Galina Stolyarova
16 August 2007

Just ahead of election season, Russia’s politicians change the laws so they can put more dissidents in prison.

The mud has been thrown. And much of it has stuck. These days, when Kremlin officials talk about “extremists” they usually mean the political opposition, and The Other Russia coalition in particular.

When the coalition’s best-known figure, former chess champion Garry Kasparov, was detained at an opposition rally in Moscow on 14 April the police said they were investigating him for “publicly calling for extremist action.” The charges were soon dropped, but the stigma persists.

The threat of “extremism” charges had been used two days before the April rally when police raided the St. Petersburg headquarters of Yabloko, the former liberal bloc in parliament.

Ostensibly the search was to seize publicity material about the same demonstration. But during the raid officers also demanded the names and addresses of those who had printed and distributed the leaflets. Despite the claim by police that the material was extremist, however, the case went nowhere.

These two cases – and others – fell apart for one reason: existing law was not strong enough to support a successful prosecution. But now all that is changing. As parliamentary and presidential elections approach, the State Duma has been busy amending the law.

In late July President Vladimir Putin signed a series of amendments that his majority party, United Russia, claims are targeted against nationalists and those planning violence. But the political opposition warns that the new clauses will amount to a crackdown on freedom of expression.

Under the new legislation no fewer than 13 aspects of extremism will become offenses. They include “public slander of state officials,” “hampering the lawful activity of state organizations,” “humiliating national pride,” and “hooliganism committed for political or ideological motives.”

And the intelligence services will be allowed to tap the phones of anyone suspected of extremism. In most democracies it takes reasonable suspicion of plotting serious offenses like terrorism, murder, or kidnapping to justify phone bugging.

Russian journalists and editors have every reason to be concerned. It will take only a stroke of the pen to brand a media report critical of the Kremlin as “public slander of state officials.” And those responsible will be at risk of up to three years in prison.

These loosely written and hastily adopted measures will make it much easier for the state to stifle its critics. And these clauses, with their vague wording, leave great scope for draconian interpretation. That could allow them to be used just as easily against peaceful democratic opposition groups as against real extremists who are ready to use violent means to gain their objectives.

Here is the full story.

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