Russian Parliament Approves Huge Increase in Protest Fines

Russia’s lower house of parliament approved in its first hearing on Tuesday a controversial draft bill that could increase fines for taking part in or organizing unsanctioned protests by as much as two hundred times.

“This amendment tells the poor – eke out your pitiful existence and don’t speak out of turn,” wrote Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of the liberal opposition party Yabloko, in a Twitter post.

Mitrokhin was one of six people detained by police during a protest in front of the State Duma building ahead of the hearing. The rally was attended by several dozen protesters.

The new fines were proposed by deputies from the ruling United Russia party in the wake of clashes between police and protesters at a downtown Moscow rally on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s May 7 inauguration as president for a third term.

The draft bill could see the maximum fine for participation in illegal demonstrations go up from the current 5,000 rubles ($160) to 900,000 rubles ($29,000), a sum far beyond the means of all but the very wealthiest of protesters. Opposition objections and public pressure are, however, expected to result in the maximum fine falling to 300,000 rubles ($9,600) in the second reading.

Fines for the organizers of protests that fail to comply with federal regulations on demonstrations would shoot up from 50,000 rubles ($1,160) to 1.5 million rubles ($48,000), a figure unlikely to change in the second hearing.

“The aim of this draft bill is very simple – to bring order and envisage responsibility in the event of disorder or hooligan and extremist acts,” Andrei Vorobyov, head of United Russia’s parliamentary faction, told the State Duma on Tuesday.

But Sergei Mironov, leader of the opposition A Just Russia party, told parliament the law was designed to “scare off those who are ready to take part in civil protests.”

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, reportedly told opposition lawmaker Ilya Ponomaryov earlier this month that protesters who injured riot police deserve to have their “livers smeared on the sidewalk.”

United Russia’s parliamentary majority ensured the draft bill was passed despite the objections of the three opposition parties – the Communists, the Liberal Democratic Party and the a Just Russia Party – with State Duma representation.

The draft bill – which now has to go through another two hearings and be approved by the upper house of parliament – could become law in early June, just ahead of another planned anti-Putin rally in Moscow. The protest was announced earlier this month by Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov, who was jailed for 15 days as demonstrators took to the streets again after Putin’s inauguration.

“This will do nothing to stop the protests,” opposition leader and Yeltsin-era deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov told RIA Novosti on Tuesday. “It will only make demonstrators more radical.”

The debate on the proposed amendments was originally set for Friday, but was postponed after opposition parties threatened a boycott. And on Tuesday, a number of opposition lawmakers wore white ribbons – the symbol of Russia’s protest movement – to the State Duma vote.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who is set to take over the leadership of United Russia from Putin later this month, also criticized the proposed hike in fines on Thursday, saying “We need to change ourselves and not just make harsher punishments.”

And on Friday, the Constitutional Court ruled that organizers of protests should not be fined automatically when the attendance of rallies exceeds set limits, as it currently the case, unless this creates a genuine threat.

Tuesday’s vote came as opposition figures and Moscow city officials discussed the possibility of a permanent location for a protest camp. Moscow police broke up two attempts to establish a round-the-clock protest camp last week.

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