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May 28, 2017

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New Russian treason law alarms Putin critics

MOSCOW -- Russia enacted a new treason law on Wednesday, alarming opponents of President Vladimir Putin who fear he will use it to silence critics and — in a reminder of the Soviet past — put at risk almost anyone who associates with foreigners.

The law broadens the definition of treason to allow Russians representing international organizations to face the charge, as well as citizens working for foreign states and bodies.

Putin signed the legislation on Tuesday which took effect on Wednesday when it was published in the official gazette, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, even though he had promised on Monday to review it.

Political opponents and rights activists say the law is the latest in a series intended to crack down on the opposition and reduce foreign influence which have been introduced since Putin returned to the Kremlin in May for a six-year third term.

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, 85, a former Soviet dissident and veteran human rights activist, drew comparisons with the darkest days under dictator Josef Stalin, who died in 1953.

"It's an attempt to return not just to Soviet times but to the Stalin era, when any conversation with a foreigner was seen as a potential threat to the state," she said, adding that the law would probably be used selectively against Kremlin critics and others "who irritate the authorities."

Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst sympathetic with anti-Putin protests this year, said the motivation behind the law was that "the state is more important than its citizens, so there must be as much control over citizens as possible."

The law was backed by the Federal Security Service (FSB), the main successor of the Soviet KGB secret police. It landed on the desk of Putin, who was once a KGB officer, after being approved by both houses of parliament in nine days last month.

The FSB, in a rare public comment, was quoted by state-run news agency Itar-Tass as saying the law had been unchanged since the 1960s and needed updating as "foreign intelligence agencies' methods and tactics for gathering information have changed."

Putin attacked the United States during campaigning for the presidential election in March, and Russian officials have said the law is needed to help prevent foreign governments using organizations in Russia to gather state secrets.

"Citizens recruited by international organizations acting against the country's interests will also be considered traitors," Rossiyskaya Gazeta said in a commentary on its website.

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