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Russia to expand high treason law

MOSCOW — Russia’s Kremlin-controlled parliament Friday tentatively approved a new bill offering a looser definition of high treason, which is seen by some as part of the Kremlin’s widening 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.’’

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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 to 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.’’

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