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Saturday, June 09, 2007

MT: Skinhead Law being Applied to Putin's Opponents

The Moscow Times reports that the worst fears about the so-called "anti-extremism" law, that it would be used not to crush racism but to crush dissent, have been proven valid:

When President Vladimir Putin signed a 2002 anti-extremism law in response to a wave of hate crimes linked to skinheads, critics warned it was a thinly veiled move to silence opponents.

Five years later, evidence is mounting to support their fears.

Renowned human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov, political analyst Vladimir Pribylovsky and political scientist Andrei Piontkovsky say the Federal Security Service has targeted them recently under the pretext of stamping out extremism. More liberal intelligentsia than White Power, these three Kremlin critics say they have been caught in a wider campaign to label anyone who disagrees with the powers that be as extremist. The investigations come as the Kremlin is being bombarded with accusations of stifling democracy from top European and U.S. officials, who have criticized its treatment of political opponents. Ponomaryov was questioned at the FSB's Lubyanka headquarters Monday over a speech he made at a January rally in defense of two businesspeople accused of illegal trafficking of ethyl ether -- charges rights activists say are trumped up. "They say I shouted extremist slogans," Ponomaryov said, adding that his questioners could not even tell him what he purportedly shouted. After the 40-minute Lubyanka meeting, Ponomaryov was told that the "material" -- whatever it was -- would be sent to the City Prosecutor's Office to decide whether to press criminal charges against him, he said. "The law on extremism is like the Soviet-style law that forbids any criticism of the state," he said.

Putin signed the anti-extremism bill into law five years ago amid heavy criticism from Communists, liberal lawmakers and human rights advocates, who said it would give the government too much power to suppress public protest. Since then, authorities' powers under the bill have only expanded. Last year Putin signed amendments broadening the definition of extremist activities, which now include pliable terms such as "undermining the security of the Russian Federation" and "interfering in the legal activity of the state." Pribylovsky believes his writings about the country's top official may have led FSB officers to search his Moscow apartment Friday and confiscate papers and his computer. Initially told the seizures were related to the investigation of the slaying of former FSB deputy chief Anatoly Trofimov two years ago, Pribylovsky said the seizure was likely connected to a biography of Putin he is writing together with U.S.-based historian Yuri Felshtinsky. Felshtinsky, together with Alexander Litvinenko, penned a book implicating the FSB in the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings that preceded the second Chechen war. Pribylovsky said he later inquired as to the whereabouts of his papers and computer and was told that they were being examined for extremist content, Pribylovsky said. "The authorities know the elections are soon," Pribylovsky said, adding that he hid a flash card with an electronic copy of his Putin biography in his trash bin. "The regime knows it is built on high oil prices and cannot stay in power."

If the FSB was trying to prevent the book from going to press, the raid appears to have been counterproductive. Citing fears for Pribylovsky's life should the biography hit Russian shelves, Felshtinsky said they had originally decided not to publish it. "But in light of the illegal FSB actions, we're going ahead with it," Felshtinsky said in a telephone interview.

Then there's Piontkovsky, who penned books critical of Putin that were distributed by opposition party Yabloko, of which he is a senior member. Authorities in Krasnodar last month, at the behest of the regional FSB branch, threatened to close down Yabloko's Krasnodar branch if it did not drop the book. The FSB came by Piontkovsky's Moscow home on Friday only to find that he had flown to Washington on a business trip. Piontkovsky, a former columnist for The Moscow Times, said authorities were trying to pressure him into not returning to Russia. "Of course, it's not pleasant," he said by telephone. "But it won't work. I am coming back." Piontkovsky is planning to attend a Moscow conference on July 10. Piontkovsky likened current extremism laws to "Stalinist laws on extremism, which they are using to get rid of any opposing views." The City Prosecutor's Office confirmed last week that the Zamoskvoretsky District prosecutor's office was investigating whether Piontkovsky's books are extremist. The books in question, "Unloved Country" (2006) and "For the Motherland! For Abramovich! Fire!" (2005), are both critical of the Kremlin.

An FSB spokesman declined to comment on the three cases and referred all questions to the agency's Moscow city branch, where repeated calls this week went unanswered. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said earlier this week that criticism of Russia's human rights record was "often highly exaggerated and most frequently incorrect" and that Russians had the right to criticize the government. "Only those who act illegally and threaten public order" are prosecuted, he said. Peskov said Thursday that it was "for the courts to decide" whether Ponomaryov, Pribylovsky and Piontkovsky are guilty of extremism. The FSB has questioned several other opposition figures in recent months in connection with purported extremism, including former chess champion Garry Kasparov and Eduard Limonov, whose banned National Bolshevik Party was dismantled by the courts on charges of spreading extremist ideology.

Last week the agency seized 150,000 copies of a newspaper advertising a Dissenters' March scheduled for Monday in St. Petersburg from a printing house in the northern capital. Authorities are examining the newspapers for extremism. Former prime minister and opposition leader Mikhail Kasyanov, who has been nominated by his People's Democratic Party to run for president in March, said FSB officers raided the party's Tula offices last week and confiscated its computers under the same pretext.

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