April 26, 2023

The Risk of Treason


The Risk of Treason
Moscow OMON (Special Purpose Mobile Unit) Vitaly V. Kuzmin, Wikimedia Commons

The State Duma of the Russian Federation has approved Criminal Code amendments that introduce life imprisonment for treason. After the amendments are approved by the Federation Council and President Vladimir Putin, they will come into force.

At present, the maximum sentence for treason is 20 years in prison.

According to current law, treason is not just espionage on behalf of a foreign state, but also for "the provision of financial, logistical, consulting or other assistance to a foreign state, international or foreign organization, or their representatives in activities directed against the security of the Russian Federation."

The vague phrasing of the law has led to a broad interpretation of treason. For example, in 2014, radio engineer Gennady Kravtsov, who used to work in the GRU, was sentenced to 14 years in prison just for sending his resume to foreign companies.

The Criminal Code article on treason is quite often used in Russia. According to the human rights initiative "Team 29," between 1997 and 2017 about a hundred people were convicted of treason and espionage. Only one such case ended in acquittal.

The highest-profile cases of recent years have been the sentence of 24 years handed down to journalist Ivan Safronov, who did not have access to state secrets; and laset week politician and journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza received a 25-year sentence.

Since the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian war, the law has been employed more frequently. Journalists report that, across Russia, people are being sent to pre-trial detention facilities on suspicion of treason.

According to Novaya Gazeta Europe, most often people are accused with the crime after making donations to the army of Ukraine or to Ukrainian foundations, for correspondence with foreigners, journalistic activities, and for plans to join the army of Ukraine. At the same time, even a pair of camouflage pants and an antiwar position can serve as evidence of such a plan.

Lawyer Andrey Pavlov, a specialist in treason cases, said he believes that tougher penalties are necessary in order to facilitate the work of Russian security forces. "The increase in terms raises the stakes in the practice of intimidating suspects. They will be offered to make a pre-trial agreement, inform on someone, and in exchange they will be promised that a life sentence will not be sought," the lawyer says.

This is not the first time since the start of Russia's War on Ukraine that Russia has tightened penalties for "crimes against the state." In particular, in December a package of "anti-sabotage" amendments were added to the criminal code. Three new articles appeared: 281.1 ("Aiding sabotage"), 281.2 ("Training for the purposes of sabotage"), and 281.3 ("Organizing or taking part in a sabotage organization").

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