COMMENT: Amid din of new NGO bill, Duma works eagerly to erase other civil liberties

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Publish date: July 11, 2012

Written by: Charles Digges

On Friday after Alexander Nikitin, chairman of the Environmental Rights Center (ERC) Bellona, and I confirmed the Duma had given its first nod to the draconian new bill requiring NGOs receiving cash from abroad to register as “foreign agents,” I noticed another little blip of business the Duma had dispensed with that day.

Before I closed my computer, I read a brief Interfax item reporting that the Duma had voted strip Vladimir Bessonov, a low-level communist deputy of his immunity from prosecution.

Bessonov had allegedly hit a police officer during one of December’s huge protests against rigged elections that secured United Russia’s domination of the Duma.

At the time, as Alexander and I grimly shambled out of our office, it struck me as a non-event ­– another piece of paper the Duma had to sign that day in the rush toward their summer recess beginning Friday.

It was only later that the rotten tomato hit my face and I had one of those journalistic “holy cow” moments that shook me out of my tunnel vision: This was a really big deal.

It marked the first time a Duma deputy had been stripped of his immunity for political activities. The Communists, after all, are part of the massive yet amorphous opposition that has been holding vigil in Moscow’s streets against the new regime of Vladimir Putin. And the pretext of Bessonov striking a cop didn’t wash – after all, Duma deputies have a proud history of striking each other, beginning with Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky pummeling lawmaker Yevgenia Tishkovskaya about the head during a parliametary debate in 1995 wiht impunity. A loud-mouthed, antic and petulant nationalist, Zhrinovsky has also had three televised brawls during debates on news programs on Russia state television without being defrocked of his immunity despite police reports filed against him by his victims.

Along with the Bessonov incident and then the first passage of three for the NGO bill, the Duma had for several days been up to the business of decimating any number of civil liberties, from freedom of assembly, prosecuting parliamentarians for their dissent, imposing heavy fines and jail time for “slander” and “libel,” turning its back on religiously motivated arrests and prosecutions, to even deciding what Internet pages Russians can open.

It had been a busy few weeks, but so many of these cornerstones that were dropping to form the foundation of a new totalitarian Jerusalem had received relatively little attention amid the din of the NGO bill – which is, of course, the mother of all these other inventions.

Mission: Homogenization

The new-old regime certainly has bigger fish within the Duma it would like to fry than Bessonov for political dissent, among them Just Russia Deputies Dmitry Gudkov and Ilya Ponomaryov, who themselves were vocal supporters of – and participants in ­– the opposition rallies. Stripping Bessonov of his immunity is merely setting a precedent for reviving the old Stalin era tactic of undermining dissent from below, and laying the groundwork to prosecute anyone within the parliamentary assembly who does not toe the Kremlin line.

Gudkov and Ponomaryov are evidently in the crosshairs here and their days appear to be numbered.

From opposition to libel to jail

Another for instance of below-the-radar activities is an amendment that would make defamation a criminal offense punishable by a maximum fine of 500,000 rubles ($15,200) or up to five years in prison. The bill was introduced last week by Alexander Khinshtein and Pavel Krasheninnikov, two deputies of United Russia – the party that has brought us the new NGO bill.

Less than a year ago, then-President Dmitry Medvedev had stricken that very article from the Criminal Code, and made defamation a minor offence punishable by a 3,000 rouble ($90) fine. It was one of those things Medvedev did while in power – like, for instance, offering his condolences to the editor of Russia’s firebrand investigative Novaya Gazeta newspaper over the number of its reporters turning up dead by assassination – to put a human face on the Kremlin’s policy on human rights and the rule of law.

But thanks to the new defamation law from United Russia, of which Medvedev is incidentally the leader in his new lap-dog position as Putin’s Prime Minister, permission to intimidate journalists and human rights activists has been widely granted as the government seeks to crush libel and slander – meaning (spoiler alert!) anything that does not venerate government policy.

Medvedev’s new gag

Oddly, these rollbacks of many of Medvedev’s own policies, and the government mania to renew the persecution of prominent dissenters who dare criticize them, has elicited no criticism from the man himself – who as prime minister has an enviable bully pulpit from which to make his views known. But if he has a different opinion, he is not saying much – not like anyone would listen anyway.

Neither has Medvedev spoken out against the new law on rallies that was passed in early June restricting the constitutional right of Russians to protest and imposing a fine of 300,000 roubles ($10,000), which is the average annual Russian salary. This law carries with it punitive measures against those using the Internet to organize protests. Such crushing measures would have been unthinkable just a year ago, when Medvedev was president.

Internet blacklist bill

Yet this week, under the subterfuge of the NGO bill reading, the Duma cranked up a debate on legislation that would allow the state to block access to blacklisted websites. The Russian-language Wikipedia website shut down for a day Tuesday in protest of the bill.

The bill calls for the creation of a federal register that would rule on websites carrying banned information and oblige site owners and providers to close down the offending sites. Who would determine what banned information is, and by what criteria, remains an open question as it sails into its second reading.

Of course, the bill is another blithe attempt by the Kremlin to use its pliant Duma to rubberstamp laws directed against opposition. One provision in the bill is that an entire website can be blocked for the content of one single page – a page very much like this one, which would, I imagine, erase access in Russia to, to say nothing of our Russian pages at Perhaps you can tune into them in China.

‘Pussy Riot’ police

Another IMAX view of the way the wind is blowing in Putin’s Russia is the new blessed union between the Kremlin and Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill, whose delicate religious sensibilities and embrace of the Iron Fist guarantee him – at least as far as an adoring Putin is concerned – a free seat at the Last Supper.

Kirill’s ears were deeply offended when the all-female punk rock and performance collective Pussy Riot, staged a guerilla anti-Putin gig at Moscow’s Church of Christ the Savoir on February 21. In their shredding song, they prayed to the “Holy Mother, Blessed Virgin” to “chase Putin out.” The two arrested members of the group – perhaps guilty of what used to be a minor disorderly conduct offence ­– have been held for months without trial, and face some seven years in prison for “hooliganism.”

What’s more is that the Holy Ghosts at the prosecutors’ office have even included in their indictment of the riot grrls from Pussy Riot violations of Orthodox Church rules and practices. So much for Article 14 of the Russian Constitution guaranteeing Russia as secular state.

In step with the proud framers of the new NGO bill, who cite 1938 US “foreign agent” legislation as their inspiration, I can’t imagine prosecutors’ invocations of American Colonial Puritanical statutes against witchcraft and heresy are too far down the road. The Pussy Riot girls may be in line for the Salem Slipknot.

As for the NGO bill, it is, according to Vladimir Ryzhkov, a Duma deputy from 1993 to 2007 and founder of opposition Party of People’s Freedom, the most ruthless attack the authorities have waged against NGOs in the 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

That is to say, never mind the 2006 crack down on NGOs led by Putin in his second term as president, and never mind the further gutting of the fourth sector in 2009. Should the bill pass, this is, according to Ryzhkov, who also hosts a radio program at the independent Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) radio station, the worst time ever to be a Russian NGO.

It seems to me to be worth adding that this is about the worst time to be a Russian citizen as well, at least if you aren’t one who drinks from the chalice of Kremlin Orthodoxy during communion.

Not only is the piano of the bill predicted to fall within about 72 hours, its wood is infested with termites that are eagerly gnawing away that the supporting beams of most other civil liberties a formerly somewhat modern looking Russia enjoyed at least for a few years.

The author of this comment is a foreign agent.