[JURIST] The Russian State Duma [official website, in Russian] on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to a bill [142303-9 materials, in Russian] that criminalizes negative actions towards religious groups and imposes stiff prison terms and fines on offenders. The legislation criminalizes blasphemy, including the public insulting and humiliating of religious rites and groups, as well as the desecration of religious objects. The bill proposes penalties of up to three years in prison and fines of 300,000 rubles. The legislation was created [BBC report] partially in response to the Russian feminist rock band Pussy Riot [RASPI backgrounder; JURIST news archive] after a "guerrilla performance" of a protest song last year at the altar of downtown Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral.
Free speech has been a contentious issue in Russian politics recently. In February members of Pussy Riot filed a complaint [JURIST report] in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) [official website] challenging their conviction. In January a court denied [JURIST report] the band's appeal of an Internet ban on their videos. The court ruled that the band's videos questioning the role of religion in Russian government was "extremist" and President Vladimir Putin argued that the ban is protecting the beliefs of the Russian Orthodox population. In July the Duma gave final approval [JURIST report] to a controversial Internet regulation bill, which gives the Russian government the ability to completely block access to certain websites, is described by its authors as a means of protecting children from harmful content.