Reporting from 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. ….

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.

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