Duma Bill Would Expand FSB Powers to Fight ‘Extremism’

Lubyanka, FSB headquarters. Source: Nnm.ruThis past January, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev told a session of officials from the Federal Security Services (FSB) that their agency was in need of expanded powers to deal with one of its top priorities: the fight against terrorism and extremism. Since that meeting, two suicide bombings on the Moscow metro have drawn must renewed attention to the governmental policies for combating terrorism, with human rights groups warning that the attacks might become an excuse for increased police authority and further encroachments on civil liberties. Now, Russian legislators have introduced a bill that seems to do just that by allowing the FSB to issue preemptive warnings against individuals or organizations acting in a way they determine could potentially morph into extremist activity.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty sums up the primary controversies over the bill:

Russian media sources say the law would allow the FSB to warn citizens that their behavior could create conditions that could lead to a crime — even in cases where there are no legal grounds to hold them criminally responsible. It also provides for fines against citizens who disobey FSB officials or in any way hinder their work.

According to an explanatory note posted on the State Duma’s website, the law is necessary due to a sharp rise in extremist activity. The note cites figures from the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor-General’s Office claiming that extremist crimes rose by 30 percent from 2007 to 2008.

The note also criticized the media for propagating “individualism, violence, and mistrust of the state’s capacity to protect its citizens, effectively drawing young people to extremist activities.”

Ilya Ponomarev, a lawmaker from the Duma faction of A Just Russia, calls this hyperbole, saying that the government’s figures on extremist activity are inflated.

“They often label absolutely normal social activists as extremists,” Ponomarev says. “And when the authorities are faced with a real threat to public safety they are helpless. Neither preemptive warnings nor fines will solve this problem.”

There is no shortage of examples of the Russian authorities using accusations of extremism as an excuse to stifle dissent. Federal officials routinely harass protesters, conduct raids of homes and offices, hinder legal forms of protest, and in some cases will block opposition websites, not to mention the torture accusations from Amnesty International.

Speaking to the newspaper Kommersant, Lev Levinson of the Russian non-governmental Institute for Human Rights said that the bill would shift responsibilities currently held by state prosecutors to the police, a move he said was both unnecessary and dangerous. “This is precisely what the fight against dissent is apparently turning into,” he said. “That today the chekisti (referring to the FSB) don’t have the authority to issue warnings doesn’t mean in the least that there aren’t feasible ways to prevent crime.” Levinson added that while prosecutors act as a sieve to prevent abuses when issuing warnings about extremism, the FSB would not.

All in all, said Levinson, the initiative would “untie the hands of FSB officers,” and abuses by the agency can consequently be expected to grow.

In a statement responding to the Moscow metro bombings, Garry Kasparov’s United Civil Front reminded readers of the steps taken over the past ten years by the Russian government in the name of fighting terrorism and extremism, pointing out that, given the bombings, they have not been ideally effective.

The tragic events that occurred in Moscow on March 29, 2010, could be appropriated by the current government for an even larger infringement of the rights and freedoms of citizens of the Russian Federation. The apartment bombings in Moscow, Buynaksk, and Volgodonsk in the fall of 1999 triggered the beginning of a second military campaign in Chechnya and immediately provided Vladimir Putin with the necessary ratings for victory in the 2000 presidential elections. As a result of the terrorist attacks in the Dubrovka Theater in October 2002 and in Beslan in September 2004, elections for governors and regional leaders in Russia were abolished. And today, after the events of March 29 in Moscow, it is obvious that these measures did not increase the safety of Russia’s citizens in the least.

No matter how much this new bill might look like a continuation down that same path, any opposition to the bill is unlikely to keep it from passing given that United Russia, the pro-Kremlin party lead by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, holds an overwhelming majority in the State Duma,.