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Putin signs law extending definition of treason; critics fear crackdown on dissent

Russian President Vladimir Putin waits for other leaders during the arrival ceremony at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Vladivostok, Russia, Sept. 8, 2012.

Mikhail Metzel/AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a law broadening the definition of treason which opponents say could be used to smother dissent and put almost anyone who has contact with foreigners at risk.

The law allows Russians representing international organizations to be charged with treason, as well as those working for foreign intelligence. It took effect on Wednesday when it was published in the official gazette, despite a promise by Mr. Putin on Monday that he would review it.

Political opponents and rights activists say the legislation is the latest in a series of laws intended to crack down on the opposition and reduce foreign influence since he returned to the Kremlin in May for a six-year third term.

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"Citizens recruited by international organisations acting against the country's interests will also be considered traitors," the official gazette, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, said in a commentary on its website.

The maximum sentence for high treason remains 20 years.

At a meeting of his human rights council on Monday, Mr. Putin listened to a retired Constitutional Court judge's concerns about the legislation, which she said did not require authorities to prove a suspect damaged state security.

Mr. Putin indicated at the meeting that he would move cautiously and that the legislation had been scrutinized closely as it passed through parliament. But he also said, "Nonetheless, I am ready to return to this again, to look more attentively."

Mr. Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the President had signed the legislation on Tuesday although the Kremlin had not made a formal announcement.

Russian officials have said the law is needed to help prevent foreign governments using organizations in Russia to gather state secrets.

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