MOSCOW — Russian President Dmitry Medvedev paused in the last, quiet hours of a dying year to sign into law a controversial bill that eliminates jury trials for "crimes against the state," a move that lawyers and human rights groups fear will be the start of a dangerous exertion of Kremlin control over government critics.
The law does away with jury trials for a variety of offenses, leaving people accused of treason, revolt, sabotage, espionage or terrorism at the mercy of three judges rather than a panel of peers. Critics say the law is dangerous because judges in Russia are vulnerable to manipulation and intimidation by the government.
A parallel piece of legislation, pushed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and still awaiting discussion in parliament, seeks to expand the legal definition of treason to such a degree that observers fear that anybody who criticizes the government could be rounded up by police -- and, because of the law signed Wednesday, tried without a jury.
Human rights groups and lawyers have warned that the changes to Russia's criminal code, largely undiscussed in the state media, would allow the government to crack down on any whispers of dissent. The changes also seek a stronger hand for the FSB, the modern incarnation of the Soviet KGB, by giving the state wider latitude in cases that fall under intelligence agency rather than police jurisdiction. Some critics point to the days of dictator Josef Stalin as a comparable legal structure.
"It's a preparation for terror, although not the grand terror of the 1930s," said Andrei Illarionov, a fellow at Washington's Cato Institute and a former economic advisor to Putin. "They are much smarter now. They are preparing some kind of selective terror against those who are courageous enough to speak up."
The purpose, many observers agree, is not only to give the government greater tools in cracking down, but also to send out tremors of fear.
"Not that they necessarily will go ahead and do it, but they are threatening us very, very seriously that they can do it and are ready to do it," said Lev Ponomaryov, leader of the For Human Rights movement. "They want to have the legitimate possibility to call all opposition people enemies of the state."
Medvedev's last-minute signing had all the trademarks of a pre-holiday news dump engineered to generate the least possible media coverage. New Year's Eve is the biggest holiday of the year in Russia, and even those watching the news were distracted by the failing negotiations over shipments of Russian gas to Ukraine. The law was announced by a single sentence on Interfax.
Human rights and civil society groups have banded together to speak out against the move toward a broader definition of treason, which will be debated in a parliament dominated by Putin's United Russia party.
The government has framed the jury law as an anti-terrorism measure, but legal experts say its implications are broader and more ominous -- especially if the treason changes go through.
A chilling effect had begun to creep into the legal system even before the bill was signed into law, critics said. Svetlana Gannushkina, a human rights lawyer and chairwoman of Russia's Civic Assistance committee, gave the example of a man from the Dagestan region who is represented by her organization. A jury found him not guilty of sabotage more than a year ago, and Russia's Supreme Court backed the verdict, rejecting an appeal by prosecutors. The man was cleared -- until a few weeks ago.
"And now what's happening? When this campaign to change the law began, the prosecutor's office immediately filed a new appeal," Gannushkina said. "And this time, the Supreme Court cancels the decision of the trial and the verdict of the jury, and the whole process starts all over again."
"They call it 'managing the signals,' " she said. "You don't even need to pass a decision anymore, you just need to send the signals."
In the last week, there had been a faint hope among human rights organizations that Medvedev might refuse to sign the bill. The Russian president is a lawyer who was once seen as more moderate than Putin. He campaigned on promises to uphold the rule of law in the country.
"I'm convinced that Medvedev himself understands quite well that if he signs the law on jury trials, he crosses out his own legal career," Ponomaryov said in an interview hours before the bill became law.
"Finally, without any questions or suspicions, he becomes an outright shadow of Mr. Putin."