Russia’s strict new anti-terror laws: What is the debate about?

A new package of "anti-terrorist" laws adopted by the State Duma on the last day of the legislative season has the potential to affect many areas of the lives of ordinary Russians. What do lawmakers hope to achieve with the new legislation and why has it been criticized?
Irina Yarovaya
A controversial package of "anti-terrorist" laws was initiated by State Duma deputy Irina Yarovaya and Federation Council member Viktor Ozerov. Source: Anna Isakova/TASS

A controversial package of "anti-terrorist" laws initiated by State Duma deputy Irina Yarovaya and Federation Council member Viktor Ozerov has become the parting gift from the current convocation of the State Duma – after its adoption, the Duma went on summer vacation; the Russians will elect a new parliament in the fall.

The automatic media analysis and monitoring system Medialogia ranked the "Yarovaya package" in first place among the State Duma's 10 most resonant initiatives over the last five years.

The package of dozens of bills, which seriously toughen the current Russian anti-terrorist legislation has already caused widespread controversy and heated public debate.

Several controversial amendments, including one that contained provisions for depriving people of Russian citizenship in certain cases, which is forbidden by the constitution, were removed from the package before it was adopted, but the rest can still seriously affect the lives of Russians.

Why is the package needed?

The new legislation is intended to counteract extremism and terrorism more effectively, and includes a number of laws and amendments aimed at achieving this.

In particular, the Criminal Code will be augmented by a new law on "failing to report a crime." It stipulates imprisonment of up to one year for anyone found guilty of hiding information about the preparation of terrorist attacks, an armed rebellion and other crimes (a total of 15 are listed).

Under the new law on international terrorism, life imprisonment will be given for terrorist attacks or a threat to commit terrorist attacks outside Russia if Russian nationals are killed or injured.

Among other amendments, the age of criminal responsibility will be lowered to 14 years, and punishment for those found guilty of justifying terrorism on the internet will be brought in line with that for making similar statements in the media (seven years in prison), etc.

A number of new requirements concern the telecommunications sector: From now on, operators will be required to store the content of calls and correspondence of all subscribers for six months and metadata (records confirming that the calls were made) for three years, while providers of internet services with data encryption will be obliged to submit decoding keys at the request of the Federal Security Service (FSB).

How was it adopted?

The furor around "Yarovaya's Package" lasted for months: Before the first reading, the document, for example, proposed to deprive people of Russian citizenship for terrorist attacks or extremist activity (such as an internet post considered to be an incitement).

However, the Presidential Human Rights Council (HRC) subsequently accused the lawmakers of "an absence of logic," and recalled that the Constitution prohibits depriving people of citizenship.

The government singled out only one point for criticism – the obligation of operators to store such a large amount of information. They have no such technical possibilities, they concluded. But the point was eventually adopted.

What do the authorities and the public say about the package?

Speaking about the package, State Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin said the parliament had been able to find a "happy medium" between human rights and the security of citizens.

"Of course, there were disputes, but, in my opinion, a compromise solution was found," he said.

The chairman of the HRC, on the contrary, said that the law package is "not fully developed, ill-conceived and inaccurate," and should be sent back for revision – something that Communications Minister Nikolai Nikiforov agrees with. According to Nikiforov, the Duma was in such a hurry that it failed even to hear the position of the relevant ministry.

But lawyer Sergei Badamshin says it was apparently important for Yarovaya and Ozerov that the package was adopted during the current parliamentary season: "This is a publicity stunt ahead of the elections, an attempt to probe public opinion," he was quoted as saying by online newspaper Gazeta.ru.

However, public activists are posting links on social networks to pages where people can sign petitions against the amendments.

What will happen to the Russian telecommunications industry?

The country's leading mobile operators warn that the cost of communications will grow as a result of the new legislation. Mobile operator MegaFon’s public relations director Pyotr Lidov told business daily RBK that prices would rise by "at least two-three times," with rivals Beeline and Tele2 making similar estimates.

Telecom companies will have to install expensive additional equipment to meet the requirements of the legislation, with internet communications and entertainment services company Mail.Ru Group calculating that it will cost $2 billion, while annual support costs will amount to another $80-$100 million.

Foreign encrypted instant messaging services are also concerned, as they can be blocked if they do not submit encryption keys.

Pavel Durov, the co-founder and CEO of instant messaging app Telegram, has already announced his refusal to comply with the requirements of the new law.

"Telegram does not give data or encryption keys to third parties, including the government," he said.

Can anything still be changed?

The package has already been approved by the upper house of parliament, and now it is up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Theoretically, he could veto it, but this is an extremely rare occurrence. Most likely, the laws will be signed, but as soon as the elections are over, they will be begin to slowly be revised and modified.

The Federation Council has admitted that it is ready to make changes, if mobile operators can prove the inevitability of tariff escalation.

Read more: How Russia deals with terrorism in the North Caucasus>>>

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