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Russia parliament votes to strengthen KGB successor

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June 11, 2010, 5:03 p.m. | Russia and former Soviet Union — by Reuters

Reuters

MOSCOW, June 11 (Reuters) - Russia's parliament on Friday voted to boost the powers of the successor to the Soviet KGB, allowing it to summon people it believes are about to commit a crime and threaten jail for those who disobey its orders. Rights groups said the proposed regulations could be used by the FSB security service to detain opposition activists and independent journalists and undermine President Dmitry Medvedev's promises to foster civil rights.

"It's a step toward a police state," said Vladimir Ulas, a member of the opposition Communist Party. "It is effectively a ban on any real opposition activity."

The bill, which would allow the FSB to issue a legally binding summons to anyone whose actions it considers as "causing or creating the conditions for committing a crime," was passed in the first of three required readings in the State Duma.

All 313 members of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's United Russia party present voted in favour, while the Communists joined the smaller pro-Kremlin parties, Fair Russia and the Liberal Democrats, in opposing the bill.

Gennady Gudkov, whose Fair Russia party rarely opposes government-backed legislation, described it as "a left-over order from the Soviet Union."

He said he would lobby for changes to the bill before the second reading. It also needs approval by the United Russia-dominated upper house and Medvedev's signature.

The bill would set a penalty of up to 15 days in prison for anyone who "disobeys a legitimate order" from an FSB agent. Rights groups say the changes taken together could allow the FSB to detain anyone it likes without any judicial process.

"A warning sounds benign, but under Russian law it can have serious consequences," said Allison Gill, Moscow director of New York-based Human Rights Watch. "It is a significant increase in power for the FSB."



TACKLING EXTREMISM

The bill, submitted to parliament by Putin's government weeks after two suicide bombings blamed on Islamists killed 40 people in Moscow's metro, is aimed at tackling a growing number of "extremist crimes," according to an addendum to the law.

An existing law under which slander of a state official can be treated as extremism has been used against Kremlin critics.

Activists have compared the proposed FSB legislation to the decision by Putin, a former KGB officer, to scrap direct elections for governors and tighten other electoral laws after 331 people died in the 2004 Beslan school hostage-taking.

But Medvedev portrays himself as a champion of civil rights and commentators say he may feel pressure to veto the bill.

The addendum also accused print and electronic media outlets of "effectively dragging youth into extremist activity," raising fears among media rights groups that the law will be used to caution and possibly detain opposition journalists.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based media watchdog, said the bill would give Russian authorities "Soviet-style power to censor information" and called for it to be immediately scrapped.

The FSB has dismissed the criticism from rights groups, saying the measures are simply aimed at bringing down crime.

"This is a very humane preventative measure aimed at preventing people from committing more serious misconduct in the future," said FSB Deputy Director Yuri
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