The lower house of the Russian Parliament passed a draft law on Friday allowing the country’s intelligence service to officially warn citizens that their activities could lead to a future violation of the law, reviving a Soviet-era K.G.B. practice that was often used against dissidents. The president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, is expected to sign it into law shortly.
The legislation was proposed during the tense weeks after two suicide bombers attacked the Moscow subway, and its stated goal was to stanch the growth of radicalism among young Russians. But rights advocates and opposition parties have warned that the expanded powers could be used to silence critics of the government. In a letter made public on Thursday, 20 leading human rights activists condemned the legislation as a blow to “the cornerstone principles of the law: the presumption of innocence and legal certainty.”
On one hand, we have the principle that persons are presumed innocent and can only be convicted of a crime based on evidence showing at least an overt act connected to a crime. On the other, we have the concept of thought crimes—that someone’s very attitudes can constitute a predisposition to commit crime, and that this is a crime itself. The first belongs to the bedrock of modern democratic society. The second is a characteristic of totalitarian systems. The two cannot really be reconciled.
America has been experimenting with the notion of pre-crime for eight years, as our Justice Department and intelligence community have set out to apprehend, abuse, and torture persons, not based on evidence that they have committed a crime, but rather on generally unreliable intelligence predicting that they are likely to do so, perhaps citing scattered words in phone conversations or emails. When the victims turn out to be clearly innocent, a dilemma arises. But the Leitmotiv of the Justice Department since 9/11 has been simple: never admit to having made a mistake. This explains the numerous attempts to extort bogus confessions through torture and oppression, and the efforts to rig a case in an attempt at least to persuade authorities that there was a legitimate basis to hold the prisoner in the first place. Maher Arar and Khaled El-Masri are but two of the victims of these shenanigans.
This is another of those lamentable areas in which, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a convergence seems to be underway between Russia and the United States, and the Soviet model is proving far more influential than most observers would like to acknowledge.