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Screwing over people, not terrorists Why Russian lawmakers' latest legislative initiative is a really lousy idea

Source: Meduza
Photo: Alexander Shalgin / State Duma press service / TASS

On May 13, Russia's State Duma approved a first draft of a whole set of laws targeting terrorism, introduced by Duma deputy Irina Yarova and Federation Council senator Viktor Ozerov. The laws propose a number of harsh new standards that could affect millions of ordinary Russians without any connections to terrorism. Meduza reviews the biggest shortcomings of this latest misguided legislative initiative. 

Damn these laws are harsh

The proposed laws would introduce into Russia's criminal code several new kinds of crimes and expand possible punishments considerably for some existing crimes. For example, lawmakers want to create a criminal code article banning public incitements and justifications of terrorism published on the Internet, setting the maximum punishment at seven years in prison. The article on “public incitements and justifications” already exists, but special language about publications on the Internet isn't in the law today. Being thrown in prison for up to five years for writing a careless statement online (or even reposting someone else's remarks) is also something that's already possible in Russia (under anti-extremism statues), but the new anti-terrorist law would only add to the prohibitions now on the books. In addition, lawmakers want to lower the age at which Russians can be prosecuted for such crimes, from sixteen to just fourteen.

What are these laws even talking about?

In theory, there's a discussion to be had about strengthening Russia's laws against terrorism. (The laws introduced by Yarova and Ozerov are described as “anti-terrorist‚” after all.) But the legislation's vague language creates big opportunities for abuses when it comes to implementing the laws. For example, one of the proposed statutes suggests punishing people for failing to report “fairly well-known planned” terrorist plots. But it's unclear by what criteria officials would determine what qualifies as a “well-known” plot. Laws like this could also prompt waves of unfounded criminal reports from people fearing prosecution for saying nothing. And it's just as easy to imagine that some of these denunciations would turn into bona fide criminal cases.

There's already a law for that

Lawmakers have also proposed a new criminal statute against “international terrorism.” But there's already a criminal code article against that. It's called article 205 and it applies to any acts of terrorism committed against Russian citizens inside Russia or anywhere else in the world. It's unclear why Yarova and Ozerov want another law to address this.

Screw the courts

Lawmakers have also drafted an entirely new category of citizens who would face travel restrictions. This group of people would include anyone with outstanding or unexpunged convictions under certain “anti-terrorist” criminal statutes and laws against extremism. In Russia, there's a wide array of laws against extremism, and abuses in enforcing these laws are notorious. According to human rights activists, Russia's legislation against extremism is the authorities' most important repressive instrument in the fight against political dissidents. In other words, the proposed new laws could mean that many innocent people find themselves banned from leaving Russia for as long as five years. Courts might not throw some people behind bars for reposting someone's comments online, but it would be far easier to ban those people from leaving the country. Such a law would also affect those who receive official police warnings about the inadmissibility of actions deemed to “create the conditions for the commission” of certain types of crimes. This would all be possible without judicial oversight, and it's unclear what actions could prompt such a warning.

Screw people's rights

The authorities want telecommunication operators to archive almost all forms of Internet traffic for a period of three years, including records of all conversations and any information that people share online. And they want the data to be made available to state officials on demand. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's government has only raised a single concern, recommending that operators shouldn't be required to store data for quite so long, saying technical feasibility should determine the time period, in order to ensure that the law is observed. (The right to privacy doesn't seem to worry anyone especially.) 

Screw logic

Yarova and Ozerov don't even bother to offer a proper explanation for why these new laws are necessary. Is there any reason to believe that all these proposed measures—such as prison time for failing to rat on your neighbors, or forbidding people to leave the country—will actually make Russians any safer? The legislation's explanatory note offers only general statements. For example, the bill's authors claim the new policing measures would “improve the security guarantees on citizens' lives and health and counter all forms of entangling them into criminal activity.” This unintelligible gibberish is as precise as the legislation's proponents get. 

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