RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Russia is moving to change the legal definition of high treason. And that has human rights groups there raising alarms. Opponents say the language of the new law will be so vague it could be used to punish Russians who have any contact with foreigners. Supporters say the changes will help the country's security service counter modern forms of spying and interference from foreign governments. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Russia's current law on treason makes it illegal to steal state secrets or to help a foreign government in some way that could harm the nation's security. The new version of the law expands that definition to include giving financial, technical, consulting or other help to foreign countries or organizations. And it adds NGOs and international organizations to the list of potentially treasonous contacts.
The measure sailed through Russia's parliament, which is dominated by Vladimir Putin's United Russia Party, despite a storm of protest from opposition lawmakers such as Ilya Ponomaryov.
ILYA PONOMARYOV: (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: Ponomaryov, a deputy from the Just Russia Party, called the legislation a step in the wrong direction, a move that would give the Federal Security Service almost blanket authority to investigate and prosecute dissenting voices.
Supporters of the new law include Igor Korotchenko, a national security analyst and chairman of the public advisory council to Russia's Ministry of Defense. Korotchenko has high praise for the American FBI, especially for its success in uncovering Russian spies such as Robert Hanson and Anna Chapman.
IGOR KOROTCHENKO: (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: He says the effectiveness of America's intelligence agencies was further enhanced by the powers they were given after the 9/11 attacks. Korotchenko says he simply wants Russia's Federal Security Service to have the same broad powers as its American counterpart.
KOROTCHENKO: (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: But critics say it's not the powers but the lack of specifics that's dangerous. Journalist Andrei Soldatov edits an online watchdog journal about the Russian security services called Agentura.
ANDREI SOLDATOV: The most interesting thing about this law is that you don't need to actually implement or have people arrested because of the new law. You just need to pass the law and people will be more cautious.
FLINTOFF: Soldatov says he's already seen his colleagues - security experts and Russian journalists - becoming more cautious about speaking with or making contacts with foreigners. He points to a series of new laws that he says have had a chilling effect on critics of the government. They include a law passed this summer that requires groups that receive money from foreign countries to register as foreign agents, a term that has profoundly negative implications in Russia, almost amounting to spy.
The proposed changes in the treason law have drawn sharp criticism from rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch, and from the European Union. Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, said the measure appears designed to reduce the scope for civil society in Russia. She noted that Russians who have contact with foreigners could face up to 20 years in prison.
Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.
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