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Russia's Security Service Could Gain Powers Formerly Associated With Soviet KGB

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Russia's parliament is considering a new law that would extend the powers of  the country's secret security agency, the FSB. If the bill is passed, it would restore practices once associated with the infamous KGB. Russia's security services have steadily regained power and influence under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB officer. Human rights advocates are concerned that the new measures could further curtail the rights of government critics and the independent media.

The KGB was one of the most feared instruments of the Kremlin during the Soviet Union and viewed by many as the world's most effective information gathering organization. It's successor organization, the FSB is engaged mostly in domestic affairs and its powers have been steadily growing. The current government-backed legislation would allow FSB officers to summon individuals for informal talks and issue written warnings about forbidden participation in anti-government activities such as protest rallies - even if they have not violated the law.

"The draft, as I currently understand it, we have very serious human rights concerns about it," said Allison Gill, the director of Moscow's office of Human Rights Watch. "It allows law enforcement agencies to literally question anyone about anything and to punish people through arrest or forced interrogation or deprivation of liberty for what would otherwise be a protected activity. Civil peaceful forms of dissent are protected by Russian law and they are protected by international human rights standards."

"Combatting extremism"

The Russian government says the proposed new measures are an effort to combat extremism.

In 2006, the Russian parliament passed anti-extremism legislation that expanded the definition of extremism to include the slandering of a public official, hindering the work of authorities and involvement in hooliganism or vandalism for ideological, religious or ethnic reasons.

Alexander Verkhovsky is director of the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis in Moscow, an organization dedicated to researching nationalism and xenophobia in Russia.

He says government claims that expanding the power of the FSB would stop extremism is ironic because he continues to be the victim of extremists, such as skinheads, because of the work he does. Furthermore, Verkhovsky says that law enforcement officials, including the FSB, have done absolutely nothing to help protect him and his family.

"Some Neo-Nazi groups, they sent us death threats by email or by phone," said Verkhovsky.  "Some even came to my house. They even sent me a video.  It explained that I am an enemy of the Russian people, that I support terrorists.  My house was exposed, my address, my photo. Officially, I was never called to the police station.  They never called me on the phone. They are not interested in this type of investigation and really are not involved."

Controls on journalists, media rights

The proposed bill also appears to tighten controls on journalists. It was submitted after Moscow's subway system was hit by dual suicide bombers at the end of March, killing at least 40 people.

Boris Gryzlov, the speaker of Russia's lower house of parliament, sharply criticized two major Russian newspapers for their coverage of the event. Gryzlov implied that the journalists had taken the side of the terrorists by claiming that the Kremlin's policies, in the Northern Caucuses region, may have contributed to a rise in the violence in the region, and may have accounted for the subway bombings.

Allison Gill, with Human Rights Watch in Moscow, says the proposed law would have grave consequences for press freedom.

"This could present serious obstacles to journalists. It's in the public's interest for journalists to be able to report freely and independently they have to be able to write without fear of legal sanctions," said Gill. "It would limit journalists on what they are allowed to write or it would require cooperation between journalists and law enforcement authorities. That would have a chilling effect on what stories journalists are allowed to report that are supposed to be in the public's interest."

Human rights lawyer Lidia Yusupova has done a lot of work in both war ravaged Chechnya and in Moscow. She says the FSB already has too much access to the average person. Yusupova voiced her concerns and the video was also posted on the internet website, YouTube.

She says the best way is to tap phones; the secret service does not have to work hard for information. She says she feels safer in Chechnya than she does in Moscow.

Medvedev defends FSB

On the other hand, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has defended the FSB and commented on how important the organization is to the average Russian.

He recently gave a speech to the agency's board. Mr. Medvedev says ensuring the security of Russia is one of the top priorities. He says most important is the fight against terrorism and extremism. Last year the FSB succeeded in preventing more than 80 terrorist attacks and neutralized more than 500 leaders and members of criminal groups.

It is unclear when the bill will come up for a vote in Russia's lower house of parliament, otherwise known as the Duma. It could be amended in the meantime or even scuttled.

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