Postcard from... Moscow

 

The political wind has blown in only one direction since Vladimir Putin, right, returned to the Kremlin in May, with laws on protests and NGOs being activity tightened in ways that have left Kremlin critics and rights activists feeling distinctly uneasy. The same is true of a new law, rushed through parliament in recent weeks, that broadens the definition of treason.

Under the new law, treason encompasses not just Russians who work for foreign intelligence services, but also those who pass state secrets to any foreign organisation. Combined with a new law which labels any NGO taking foreign grants as a "foreign agent", it looks like an attempt to scare Russians away from co-operating with international organisations and NGOs.

People who provide consultancy or "other assistance" to foreign organisations can be found guilty of treason, and obtaining state secrets, even without attempting to share them, can lead to four years in jail.

Rights activists, meeting Mr Putin at a sitting of his Human Rights Council earlier this week, pointed out to the President that the wording was vague and that the new law sent a dangerous message and was open to abuse by authorities. Mr Putin, perhaps surprisingly, agreed with the rights activists and promised that the bill would be given further attention before he signed it into law.

Then, yesterday, just two days after he made that promise, Mr Putin signed off on the new law and it is now in effect. The worry is that with Russia's notoriously pliable courts, the law could be twisted to punish political opponents rather than genuine traitors.

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