The Russian State Duma [official website, in Russian], the lower house of parliament, gave preliminary approval Tuesday to legislation that would create harsh penalties for participating in illegal protests. The bill, supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin [official website, in Russian], would impose fines [LAT report] up to USD $50,000 for organizers of demonstrations that become violent or exceed the approved number of participants. Critics have called the bill "draconian" and worry that it will stifle freedom of expression. The bill was approved by a vote of 236-207 on the first reading and must still receive final approval next month.
The new legislation comes on the heels of protest rallies preceding Putin's inauguration earlier this month. Russia has previously been criticized for stifling free expression. Earlier this month prominent Russian gay rights activist Nikolai Alekeyev became the first to be convicted under a St. Petersburg city ordinance that prohibits the spreading "homosexual propaganda" to minors. Alekeyev was arrested in April [JURIST report] for picketing in front of city hall with a sign that said "homosexuality is not perversion." People who oppose the new law, which was introduced in November and signed into law [JURIST reports] in March, claim it will prevent gay rights groups from being able to assemble in public. Alekeyev said he plans to appeal the ruling.