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Bill Expanding FSB Powers Raises Concern

The Federal Security Service could get more power to intimidate citizens and punish them for not complying with what is vaguely described as "legitimate demands" from its officers, according to a government-drafted bill.

The bill, submitted to the State Duma on Saturday, is apparently aimed at lending more legitimacy to the FSB's informal ways of work. But documentation accompanying the bill suggested that it could also be used by law enforcement to target media reporting unfavorably about the state's actions.

Among the provisions in the legislation is a rule that would allow the FSB to warn citizens or legal entities that their behavior is creating conditions that could lead to crime, even if there are no legal grounds to hold them criminally responsible.

The FSB also wants to introduce fines for citizens and legal entities for not obeying FSB officials' demands or for hindering their work.

Under the existing Administrative Code, those who disobey orders of police, military, prison or migration officials can be punished by a fine of up to 1,000 rubles (about $35) or be arrested for 15 days. The code does not include FSB in this clause, but by law, FSB officials are considered to be in military service and therefore have the right to issue fines or conduct arrests.

An explanatory note accompanying the bill noted the rise of "extremist activity" in Russia and suggested that the amendments were urgently needed. Citing figures from the Investigative Committee, the document said 460 extremist crimes were registered in Russia in 2008, or nearly 30 percent higher than a year earlier.

The note, posted on the Duma's web site, said the media was partly to blame for the rise of extremism.

"Some media outlets, both print and electronic, openly help shape negative processes in the spiritual sphere, propagate individualism, violence and mistrust of the state's capacity to protect its citizens, effectively drawing young people into extremist activities."

The bill would mark a return to the Soviet-era practice of informal talks, in which officers from the FSB predecessor, the KGB, would intimidate public activists from speaking against the government, human rights activists said.

Lev Ponomaryov, a Soviet dissident who now heads the Committee for Human Rights, recalled how decades ago university students were forced to sign agreements with the KGB promising that they would fight political dissent.

"People will be forced to cooperate with the FSB, and they could face fines and arrests. This is a serious situation and we will protest against these amendments," Ponomaryov said.

Under the law now, warnings to those believed to be involved in suspicious activities are issued by prosecutors. Also, citizens are now free to disregard the FSB's calls to informal talks.

Andrei Soldatov, head of the Agentura think tank, which studies security agencies, said the changes were prepared to raise the FSB's profile and return some of the pre-emptive security functions that it has lost in recent years.

"People got used to the fact that they are investigating cases. But the FSB wants to act when there is no case and they want to act pre-emptively," Soldatov said.

During the 2000s, law enforcement agencies, including the FSB, were amassing legal authority and resources, saying they needed more power to fight extremism and terrorism.

Often, these powers were applied to intimidate and silence political dissent, especially after the controversial law on extremism was adopted in 2007. The law made criticism of the authorities and sowing discord between social groups a punishable crime.

Russian courts have ruled several times since then in extremist cases that officials and law enforcement officers are distinguishable social groups, and they have issued harsh sentences to defendants who have criticized them.

Mikhail Grishankov, first deputy head of the Duma's Security Committee and a member of the ruling United Russia party, said the amendments were developed long ago.

"In the framework of preventive measures, new opportunities will emerge for the FSB," Grishankov, a retired FSB officer, told The Moscow Times.

Even under the new legislation, if it were to pass, a person could not be forced to cooperate with the FSB. "This is his right," he said.

Ponomaryov said the bill appeared to be in response to the recent terrorist bombings in the Moscow metro last month, in which 40 people were killed.

State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov sparked a storm of criticism earlier this month for linking the newspapers Vedomosti and Moskovsky Komsomolets to terrorists for publishing articles that he called "suspicious."

Gryzlov told President Dmitry Medvedev that the newspapers had been critical of the state's response to the attacks and attributed them to revenge for the Kremlin's policy in the Caucasus, which rebel leader Doku Umarov cited as his reason when he claimed responsibility.

Google was forced to remove a YouTube video, in which Umarov claimed responsibility for the attacks and said they were retribution for FSB killings of innocent civilians, after an outcry from United Russia deputies.

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