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Russian security agency given new powers

- Associated Press - Monday, July 19, 2010

MOSCOW (AP) -- The upper house of Russia's parliament on Monday passed a bill granting expanded powers to the country's main security agency, a move that critics say echoes the era of the Soviet KGB.

The bill, which now goes to President Dmitry Medvedev to be signed into law, would allow the Federal Security Service to issue warnings to people suspected of preparing to commit crimes against Russia's security.

Human rights and democracy activists say this power could be used to intimidate government opponents and stifle protests.

"This law is targeted against the opposition. . . . It's a draconian law which is unprecedented in the world and is reminiscent of our repressive past," Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the opposition Solidarity movement, was quoted as saying by the news agency Interfax.

The security service is the main successor agency to the KGB.

The bill was approved by the upper house by a vote of 121-1. The sole vote against was cast by the house's speaker, Sergei Mironov, who said he had was apprehensive about the measure.

Opposition groups frequently are denied permission to hold rallies or are allowed to hold them only in out-of-the-way neighborhoods. Riot police often break up unsanctioned rally attempts swiftly and brutally.

The bill has raised doubts about Mr. Medvedev's commitment to promoting full-fledged democracy and freedom of expression. Mr. Medvedev often has spoken of instituting judicial and police reforms and has taken a less hard line on many issues than his predecessor, current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent and later head of the FSB. Many people see Mr. Putin's intolerance of dissent as influencing the Kremlin.

But Mr. Medvedev, when asked at a news conference last week about the proposed law, testily responded that the country has "the right to improve its own legislation."

The measure was introduced a few weeks after the March double-suicide bombings on the Moscow subway system that killed 40 people. One of the bombers hit the Lubyanka subway station, beneath the headquarters of the security service.

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