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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Terror Bills Raise Civil Rights Fears

Human rights activists and liberal lawmakers are up in arms over proposed legislation giving the state greater power to curtail civil liberties during anti-terrorism operations, a term that includes the ongoing fight against militants in Chechnya.

Two bills put forward by deputies from the State Duma's pro-Kremlin majority, to be considered this month, call for changes to existing laws on fighting terrorism and on emergency situations. But they have come up against criticism from the Supreme Court and parliament's upper chamber.

The most controversial amendment allows the passage of federal laws "limiting certain civil rights and freedoms in the zone of a counterterrorism operation" without introducing a state of emergency.

Under the legislation, prosecutors would be allowed to detain terrorism suspects without the sanction of a court, a provision that contradicts the new Criminal Procedural Code, which requires a court's permission to keep suspects behind bars for longer than 48 hours.

One of the bills also gives the Supreme Court the right to transfer certain terror-related criminal cases from courts in the area of a counterterrorism operation to courts in other regions.

The bills' authors say their goal is to strengthen the legal system in Chechnya, where Moscow has been eager to create a semblance of normal life.

"The counterterrorism operation in the Chechen republic has shown that it is not always possible to ensure the normal functioning of the court system in the zone of such an operation," the deputies said in an explanatory note accompanying the bills. "A significant lack of judges and the violence, threats and blackmail used against them often make it impossible to uphold justice."

However, critics have called the legislation repressive and unconstitutional.

The Federation Council's defense and security committee refused to back the bills, saying they need extensive changes as they contradict the Constitution, the Criminal Procedural Code and legislation on the court system.

Supreme Court deputy chairman Anatoly Merkushev also opposed the bills, saying they violated constitutional guarantees on court jurisdiction.

"The current Criminal Procedural Code of the Russian Federation lists the grounds for changing the territorial jurisdiction of a criminal case ... and 'committing a crime in an area where a counterterrorism operation is under way' is not one of those grounds," Merkushev said in an evaluation of the bills.

The liberal Yabloko and Union of Right Forces parties have promised to vote against the amendments, while human rights activists have called them "political rather than juridical."

"These laws would make it possible to introduce repressive emergency measures without declaring a state of emergency," Lev Ponomaryov of the For Human Rights movement said Wednesday.

During a state of emergency, it is illegal to hold elections or referendums, so the proposed legislation would free Moscow's hands to restrict civil liberties without jeopardizing much-touted plans to conduct a constitutional referendum in Chechnya next month.

Ponomaryov cautioned that the legislation could set a dangerous precedent, for example in the event of a major terrorist attack in Moscow like last fall's hostage-taking at the Dubrovka theater.

He also said the bills suggested Moscow did not trust local Chechen courts.

The bills were on the Duma's agenda for Wednesday but got postponed until Feb. 26 at the request of one of the authors, Unity's Vladislav Reznik. It was not clear whether Reznik called for the delay because of scheduling problems or due to the negative feedback.