Russia's Kremlin-controlled parliament on Friday tentatively approved a new bill offering a looser definition of high treason, which is seen by some as part of the widening Kremlin's crackdown on dissent.
The current law describes high treason as espionage or other assistance to a foreign state damaging Russia's external security, while the new bill drafted by the main KGB successor agency widens it to include moves against Russia's "constitutional order, sovereignty and territorial and state integrity."
It also expands the interpretation of treason to include activities such as financial or consultative assistance to a foreign state or an international organization.
The new bill, unanimously approved by the lower house, the State Duma, in the first of three required readings, keeps the punishment of up to 20 years for treason envisaged by the current law.
Rights activists said the new bill is loose enough to allow the government punish any critics.
"I have a feeling that they are again pulling down the Iron Curtain," Soviet-era dissident Lyudmila Alexeyeva of the Moscow Helsinki Group said. She told the Interfax news agency that the bill is aimed at "ending any independent public activism in the country."
Another veteran Russian rights activist, Lev Ponomaryov, also warned that the government could use the new bill to muzzle criticism: "There will be a new twist of spy mania. They will prosecute civic activists, opposition politicians and rights defenders."
Vladimir Putin has toughened his line on dissent following a series of major street rallies against his re-election to a third term as president in March, claiming that the protests had been staged by Washington in order to weaken Russia.
New repressive laws have been passed to deter people from joining protests, and opposition activists have been subject to searches and interrogations. One of the laws passed this summer obliged non-governmental organizations that receive foreign funding and engage in vaguely defined political activity to register as "foreign agents," which is intended to destroy their credibility among Russians.
In August, a court handed down two-year prison sentences to three members of the punk band Pussy Riot for performing an anti-Putin song inside Moscow's main cathedral.
And earlier this month, Moscow declared an end to the U.S. Agency for International Development's two decades of work in Russia, saying that the agency was using its money to influence elections — a claim the U.S. denied.