The Russian State Duma [official website, in Russian] passed a bill on Tuesday that expands the definition of high treason. Treason was previously defined as espionage or assistance to a foreign state that damages Russia's external security. The bill, which was passed by the lower house, expands the definition to include acts that compromise Russia's constitutional order, sovereignty and territorial and state integrity. The maximum penalty for treason—up to 20 years in prison—remains unchanged. Critics of the legislation say the wording is overly broad [AP report] and that it may have a chilling effect on civil activism. The bill will now proceed to the upper house of parliament for a vote before it can be signed into law by Russian President Vladimir Putin [official website; JURIST news archive].
The Russian government has been cracking down on dissent in recent months. Members of Russian feminist rock band Pussy Riot [RASPI background; JURIST news archive] were given two-year prison sentences after they were convicted [JURIST report] in August of hooliganism in connection with "guerrilla performance" of a protest song in February at the altar of downtown Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral. Since the beginning of the trial [JURIST report], the group's lawyers and human rights groups have said the charges were politically motivated by Putin to discredit his opposition. In July Putin signed a bill into the law that re-criminalizes slander and libel in the country after signing into law [JURIST reports] a bill that labels all non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that receive foreign funding as "foreign agents" and requires them to register with the Justice Ministry just a week earlier.