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Jan 12, 2017 | 20:48 GMT

Russia: Lawmakers Revisit Draconian Anti-Terror Laws

A working group formed by the Russian Duma will reconsider a set of controversial laws implemented over the summer that vastly expanded the definition of terrorism as well as the government's ability to monitor potential terrorist activity. These measures, dubbed the Spring Package, have been the subject of harsh international criticism. Domestically, several hundred thousand Russians signed a petition to revisit the law. The new working group will meet Jan. 19 and, after discussions, will submit recommendations to the Duma and then to Russian President Vladimir Putin himself.

The mandate of the Spring Package is sweeping. The laws categorize any public incitement of unrest or armed rebellion as terrorism. Even discussions of such activity in mass or social media could be considered a criminal offense. Punishments can also be meted out for failing to report such discussions. Moreover, religious organizations or philosophies that lack Kremlin approval also fall under the Spring Package. To facilitate enforcement, Russian telecommunications companies are required to store all Russian user data — including texts, calls and online activity — and provide the Federal Security Service (FSB) with access to all encrypted data.

Since the Spring Package went into force, Russian authorities have carried out a series of arrests for minor infractions. For example, an anti-Kremlin activist known for walking around Moscow wearing a Putin mask has been repeatedly arrested. A representative of the Ukrainian Reformed Orthodox Church of Christ the Savior was arrested in September following a religious discussion with the St. Petersburg Messianic Jewish Community — an alleged violation of the legal ban on missionary activity. A Russian yoga teacher was sentenced to prison Jan. 9, after authorities deemed the practice against Russian traditional values. And, most recently, four people in Moscow were detained Jan. 12 for reading the constitution out loud on the streets.

The new laws have been heavily criticized. Many government members pushed back on the Spring Package, considering its measures to be overly draconian. Internet, mobile and media providers said that they do not have the technical capability to monitor the activities specified in the law or to archive information for three years as required. Some media groups, including foreign-owned Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, are against the concept of giving the FSB access to their Russian accounts. Putin reportedly considered re-working the laws after the vocal protests from government and industry, but never followed through.

Yet, the online petition seems to have caught the Kremlin's attention, and now the Duma will begin looking for compromises to appease the Russian people. This is unprecedented on many levels. Typically, the Kremlin disregards public opinion on its continued civil society crackdowns. Only in 2011-2012, when hundreds of thousands of Russians took to the streets to protest the Kremlin's manipulation of legislative elections and Putin's announcement to run for a fourth term, did the Kremlin feel pressured enough to bend to the popular will.

Instead of hitting the streets this time, Russians took to petitioning instead. The fact that the Kremlin is taking such a peaceful protest seriously shows that it is concerned, and that failure to give the matter due attention could lead to wide scale demonstrations. It is unlikely the Spring Package will be fully repealed, but some important clarifications and reshaping of the laws could take place. The extent to which petitioners are appeased depends on the scope of the modifications. 

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