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Russian activists sound alarm at soaring fines for civil 'disorder'

The Russian parliament is rushing through a bill that will impose large fines for a wide range of protests. Activists say the hikes amount to financial intimidation to chill the protest movement.

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"I wouldn't agree that this law has a repressive character, but rather that it's similar to laws in Europe and the US, which impose tough penalties on those who create disruptions during mass meetings," says Dmitry Orlov, director of the Agency of Political and Economic Communications, a Moscow think tank.

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"We needed a law like this, because our previous experience is no guide to the future. Massive gatherings can create serious problems, even those with no political character, like sport events. Meetings should be meetings, and should not change direction. This law has nothing to do with dictatorship, it's just a measure to make organizers feel responsible for the actions of people they have summoned into the street," Mr. Orlov says.

Critics say the law is being rammed through the Duma by the ruling United Russia party virtually without discussion. They say authorities are determined to have the additional legal tools it provides to punish protesters in place by the end of this week, in order to cast a chill over the next big sanctioned opposition rally, which is slated for June 12.

"There has been no debate about this draft law. They are just rushing it through," says Gennady Gudkov, a Duma deputy with the left-wing Fair Russia party, which opposes the legislation. "We are getting ready for the worst. We think this is a law that's appropriate to a police state that's evolving into a dictatorship. We're trying to fight it, but it's awfully hard in this environment."

According to an analysis of the first draft of the law by the international monitoring group Human Rights Watch, the legislation could be invoked by police to punish organizers of sanctioned rallies if any protesters commit even minor infractions, such as walking on park grass, littering, or allegedly interfering with traffic.

"Imposing large fines for violating rules on public events will have a chilling effect on peaceful assembly in Russia," Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, is quoted as saying. "The aim seems to be to curtail demonstrations rather than to properly regulate them."

Among other things, the proposed new rules will bar anyone who's been twice convicted of infractions to ever again be listed as an organizer of a political rally. It would also enshrine the rights of local authorities to create lists of municipal venues that cannot be used for protests.

Until now, Moscow officials have employed subterfuges to prevent opposition groups from gathering at symbolically-important downtown locations. For example, after several small meetings at the central Triumph Square, authorities initiated "repairs," keeping the entire area fenced off from the public for more than a year – though no repairs have taken place.

"What is basically objectionable about this law is that, out of all possible threats to society, it singles out the threat of disorders at mass rallies and massively raises the penalties," says Sergei Davidis, a lawyer who works with the opposition Solidarity movement.

"How can it be that the punishment for some petty infraction committed at a protest rally is greater than that for some minor criminal offenses? Of course big gatherings of people are difficult, by their very nature, to regulate administratively. But there is a general principle followed in most democratic societies that 'everything that's not specifically prohibited is permitted.' This draft law seems to be based on the premise that everything is prohibited unless it is specifically permitted." 


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