For the Spies Among Us

20 Oct

This morning I received a odd question in my daily Vedomosti alert: Would you be more careful associating with foreigners because of increased secrecy in Russia? What a curious question, especially since I am one of those foreigners who relies on Russians help to find places to live, access to archives, academic correspondence etc. Why would they have to suddenly be more careful? A click on the link took me to the Vedomosti article “Law on spies enters its second reading.” The article reports that a new spy law moved to the second pit-stop on the road to legality after the Russian Duma unanimously accepted its first version. Introduced way back in December 2008, left dormant by Medvedev, but now gaining new impetus, the law seeks to revise the existing high treason and espionage statutes (Article 275 and 276 of the Russian Penal Code) by broadening their scope. For the new law’s framers, the need for revision was practical: high treason is too “difficult to prove especially because its necessary to demonstrate the hostile character of the activity.” Among other edits, the new law conveniently removes the phrase “hostile activity” and inserts “harmful to the security of the Russian Federation” in its place. According to Vedomosti the implications are:

On the details and means of obtaining state secrets: [a secret] can be “entrusted” to the accused or become “known [to them] in service, work, or school,” and “in other instances stipulated by the laws of the Russian Federation.” It’s not specified what these other instances are. It will be considered criminal to provide “financial, material, technical, advice and assistance.” And instead of saying “damage to the external security,” the law now simply says “damage the security” of Russia. This includes activities against the constitutional order, sovereignty, and territorial and state integrity.

The article continues:

The new statute expands the punishment for the collection of information deemed a state secret (it describes a case where information is gathered, but not passed along or advanced). One aggravating factor, among others, will be the means of distributing such information (For example, in the media or on the internet.) as well as “the movement of those possessors of information outside the Russian Federation.” In other words, a person in illegal possession of secrets, but does not go abroad will be punished less severely (up to four years) than those who take sensitive information abroad, regardless of the purpose of the trip (for example on vacation or meeting with a resident).” This last instance carries a sentence of three to eight years.

But let’s not take Vedomosti‘s word for it. Here’s the old Article 275 and 276 and proposed revisions:

High treason that is espionage, disclosure of state secrets, or any other assistance rendered to a foreign State, a foreign organization, or their representatives in hostile activities to the detriment of the external security of the Russian Federation, committed by a citizen of the Russian Federation.

Can become:

High treason that is acts that are hostile to the security of the Russian Federation committed by the citizen of the Russian Federation: espionage, the delivery to a foreign state, international or foreign organization or to their representatives information considered a state secret entrusted to persons or have become known to him in service, work, or education, or rendering financial, material-technical, consultation or any help to foreign states, international or foreign organizations or their representatives in activities directed against the security of the Russian Federation, including its constitutional order, sovereignty, and territorial and state integrity.

Article 276 goes from:

The transfer, and also collection, theft, or keeping for the purpose of transfer to a foreign state, a foreign organization, or their representatives of information constituting a state secret, and also transfer or collection of other information under the order of a foreign intelligence service, to the detriment of the external security of the Russian Federation.

To:

The transfer and also the compilation, abduction or storage for the purpose of transferring to a foreign state, international or foreign organization or to their representatives information considered a state secret, and also the transfer or compilation by assignment of a foreign secret service or persons acting in its interests any information for their use to harm the security of the Russian Federation (espionage).

From the pithy to the verbose, and from the “hard to prove” to legal elasticity. It’s no wonder the proposed law has Russian NGOs in the tizzy.