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Russia's new treason law alarms dissident groups

The revised definition would make helping 'foreign or international organisations' a crime

Russia's lawmakers have redrafted the law on treason to make any contact with a foreigner potential grounds for prosecution. The new law, which would criminalise not only passing on state secrets but also receiving, transmitting or publishing them, has alarmed NGOs, the press and domestic opposition, who are already feeling the heat of a Kremlin crackdown.

Under the previous law only those with access to state secrets could be accused of betraying them. Now, you could be convicted for unwittingly coming into possession of them.

"If you, as a layman, ask an expert on some topic or industry to find some information, and he tells you some hearsay and it turns out to be a state secret you could be in trouble," said Andrei Soldatov, an expert on Russia's security services.

The amendment was passed by 375 out of 450 deputies in the Duma, the lower house of parliament, on Tuesday. Only two voted against the change. To become law it must still be approved by the upper house and signed by President Vladimir Putin.

Yury Gorbunov, a deputy head of the Federal Security Service, the main successor agency to the KGB, has previously said that the law would help to target international organisations being used as cover for foreign spies, to the alarm of the country's already harassed NGO community.

Under the new definition treason will include "granting financial, technical, consulting or other help" to anyone deemed to be seeking to damage Russia's security or undermine its "constitutional system, sovereignty, territorial and state integrity."

It criminalises giving such assistance not only to "foreign states" but also to "foreign or international organisations" – which could include the World Health Organisation or Amnesty International. Mr Soldatov said the bill was meant not as a weapon against the opposition, but to lower the burden of proof needed for a spying conviction.

"Frankly they [the FSB] are not professional as investigators. Putin criticised them about this in September, and the typical FSB reaction to any kind of criticism is to ask for more powers," he said. "The problem is that it has caused great alarm amongst the opposition and journalists because no one knows how it will be applied. And that is very depressing," he added.