updated 12/17/2008 3:41:08 PM ET 2008-12-17T20:41:08

Rights activists Wednesday denounced new legislation backed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that would allow Russian authorities to label any government critic a traitor, calling it a chilling throwback to times of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

The bill, which is expected to become law, would expand the definition of treason to include damaging Russia's constitutional order, sovereignty or territorial integrity. That, activists said, would essentially let authorities interpret any act against the state as treason — a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

Government supporters and Kremlin-allied lawmakers said the bill will tighten up current law. Supporters say prosecutors often have trouble gaining convictions because of ambiguities in the definition of state treason.

For example, some non-governmental organizations are not considered "foreign organizations" under current treason statutes, meaning a person who passes a state secret to an NGO might not be considered a traitor.

Activists said that would catapult Russia's justice system back to the times of Stalin's purges, calling it "legislation in the spirit of Stalin and Hitler."

"It returns the Russian justice to the times of 1920-1950s," the activists, which included Moscow Helsinki Group head Lyudmila Alexeyeva and Civic Assistance director Svetlana Gannushkina, said in a joint statement.

Open to interpretation
Existing law defines state treason as actions harming external security by passing information to "foreign organizations."

Putin's bill would add non-governmental organizations based anywhere in the world that have an office in Russia to the list of banned recipients of state secrets. The government has repeatedly accused foreign spy agencies of using NGOs as a cover to foment dissent.

But critics warned the loose wording will give authorities ample leeway to prosecute those who cooperate with international rights groups.

That may jeopardize the rights of Russia's citizens to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, which is done through NGOs. Alexeyeva said a person who reports government abuses to an NGO — for example Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch — could be deemed to have harmed Russia's interests.

As for the rest of the proposed bill, the activists believe each additional phrase deliberately targets potential threats to the Kremlin.

"Constitutional order," for example, would outlaw opposition protests, they said. "Territorial integrity" would forbid regional calls for independence, an issue of particular concern in Russia's volatile North Caucasus, where Chechnya is located.

'Base for a totalitarian state'
The legislation likely to be quickly approved by parliament, which is dominated by Kremlin loyalists.

During Putin's eight-year presidency, the government has systematically rolled back Russia's post-Soviet political freedoms and that has shown no signs of stopping under Putin's successor and protege, Dmitry Medvedev.

Alexeyeva said the government was pushing the law quickly to head off possible protests resulting from the global financial crisis, which has hit Russia hard.

"The people ruling the government are afraid of the reaction of its citizens to their inability to cope with the crisis," she said.

Lev Ponomaryov, an outspoken government critic, said the legislation creates "a base for a totalitarian state."

In a separate development Wednesday, the Russia's upper house of parliament passed legislation that would end jury trials for those facing charges of terrorism and treason. Instead they would face judges.

The bill's authors say the change was necessary because they claim juries have acquitted many suspects despite strong incriminating evidence. Critics denounced the bill as another blow to democratic principles.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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