A ‘dark day’ for freedom of expression in Russia

The space for free expression in Russia shrank further today after the State Duma in Moscow passed two new bills aimed at stamping out minority views, Amnesty International said. Within hours of each other, the country’s lower house of Parliament passed bills to criminalize blasphemy and outlaw activism by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) individuals and their supporters. The measures are expected to be approved in the near future by the upper house of Parliament and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin. “In the space of mere hours, the Duma succeeded in adopting two pieces of legislation that testify to the shrinking space for freedom of expression in Russia. They represent a sorry attempt by the government to bolster its popularity by pandering to the most reactionary elements of Russian society – at the expense of fundamental rights and the expression of individual identities,” said John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Programme Director at Amnesty International. “These laws have no place on the statute books of modern, rights-respecting democracy. The bigger question right now is whether the current government has any interest in Russia becoming one.”The first bill aims to amend the article in Russia’s Criminal Code on “obstruction of the right to freedom of conscience and religion”. It envisages a fine of up to RUB 500,000 (over USD 15,000) and up to three years of imprisonment for “public actions expressing manifest disrespect for society and committed to insult the religious feelings of believers” if these actions take place in committed in places of worship. If committed elsewhere, the offence carries up to a year of imprisonment and fine of up to RUB 300,000. This legislative assault on comes in the aftermath of last year’s trial and conviction of three members of the all-female Russian punk group Pussy Riot for “hooliganism on grounds of religious hatred” after they sang a protest song in Moscow’s main Orthodox cathedral.The second bill approved by the Duma today would slap extortionate fines on those accused of promoting “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” among children. This includes penalties of up to RUB 5,000 (US$150) for individuals, up to ten times that for officials, and up to RUB 1,000,000 (over US$30,000) as well as possible three-month suspension of activities for organizations. Ahead of the vote, some two dozen Russian lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) activists engaged in a “kissing protest” outside the Duma. According to media reports, at least 20 were detained by police after being subjected to violence by homophobic counter-protesters. Amnesty International has noted how the Russian authorities have been escalating their assault on freedom of expression in recent months. “These bills reflect the Russian authorities’ determination to dictate what people can and cannot say in all areas of life, from the political to the social. They are a backward step that should set alarm bells ringing,” said Dalhuisen.