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MOSCOW, May 31 (Itar-Tass) —— The controversial bill tightening punishment for legal abuse that may be committed in holding public rallies, which the Opposition has interpreted as an attempt by the authorities to suppress protest sentiment, has been made still harsher than its original version after United Russia deputies did some editing. Most probably the bill will take effect before June 12, the day when more street protests are due. The critics of the bill – and there are quite a few of them in society – have been warning that its application is fraught with arbitrariness and may exacerbate the standoff in society.
The bill introducing amendments to the Code of Administrative Offenses, submitted to the State Duma by United Russia legislators in April and already adopted in the first reading, proposes a considerable increase in fines for abusing the rules of holding such public events. The maximum fine for the organizers and participants was raised to one million rubles (more than 30,000 dollars) for individuals, and to 1.5 million rubles for legal entities.
The document triggered a storm of protests in society – and not only by the out-of-parliament Opposition – the main initiator of street protest actions, but of all oppositional parliamentary factions. Many politicians and public figures have come out against the bill, which is harshly restricting the freedom of assembly. In response the authors promised to make amendments to lower the fines.
It is true that the amendments that the State Duma’s constitutional legislation committee approved on Wednesday (by the votes of United Russia members), cancel the huge one-million-ruble fine for individuals. The punishment for improperly arranged rallies has been eased. However, by and large the conditions for holding oppositional rallies and processions, according to experts, have been made far worse. There are far more reasons for declaring them illegal – the term “unauthorized event” will be applicable to any mass gathering.
The maximum fine for individuals has been lowered to 300,000 rubles and a scale of offenses has been introduced – the smallest will be punishable with a fine of up to 30,000 rubles. For minor offences officials will pay up to 30,000 rubles, for grave ones, up to 600,000 rubles, and legal entities, up to 100,000 rubles and one million rubles respectively. According to the new version of the bill, if a public event has been held without proper notification of the authorities, the organizers may be fined 20,000 to 30,000 rubles. Obstructions to pedestrians and motor vehicles will be punishable with 30,000-50,000- ruble fines, and damage to property, with 100,000 to 700,000 rubles depending on the status of the plaintiff. The largest fine, of one million rubles, will be applicable to organizers – legal entities in case of abuse at rallies that have caused harm to people’s health.
Fines will be used against individuals for violating the rules of demonstrations. Such offenders will have to pay 10,000 rubles to 20,000 rubles or be punished with 40 hours of public works.
From now on legal entities can be punished for violations at rallies, too. For instance, the measure can be used against a party or public organization that has staged a “wrong” protest action. This rule will apply to both events that have to be agreed with the authorities, and protest “street strolls” that the Opposition has invented after the rally in Bolotnaya Square on May 6, which ended with clashes with police. Not only participation in the “strolls” that have resulted in violations (now there is a long list of them), but also calls for joining in (including those on the Internet) will be punishable. As a matter of fact, calls through the social networks for gathering at some particular place at a particular time will be treated as demonstrations proper.
At the committee’s meeting the opponents of the ruling party warned that if such a law is passed, it may bring about some very weird situations. For instance, A Fair Russia legislator, Dmitry Gudkov, speculated that police may feel free to detain guests at a wedding, which is “mass and simultaneous presence of citizens in a public place.” When the ban on wearing masks at rallies was discussed, Communist Party deputy Vadim Solovyov asked what is to be done to Muslim women, who are obliged to veil their faces. The answer was simple – nobody is allowed to cover one’s face, even those having flu. A Fair Russia deputy, Ilya Ponomaryov, inquired if the new bill would outlaw masquerades and Halloween parties.
The chief of the presidential council for the development of civil society and human rights, Mikhail Fedotov, has addressed the constitutional legislation committee with a proposal the bill should be returned to the first reading stage again “for a broad public discussion.” The phrase “organization of massive simultaneous presence of citizens in a public place, having the properties of a public event,” says Fedotov, may be applied to any large company, and such legal construction will threaten the constitutional right of citizens to gather peacefully and without arms.
Author Boris Akunin, one of the organizers of the “protest stroll,” in his blog posted the following comment on the United Russia-proposed measures: “Sirs, will you please remember this. If you go ahead with this foolishness, you may consider the “test stroll” a light and minor warm-up. My intuition of a book author is telling me that from now on very many street actions will prove unauthorized, and the authorities will be unable to do anything about that.”
“This bill is bad in all respects,” the director of the Institute of Law Enforcement Problems at the European University in St. Petersburg, Ella Paneyakh said. “Its timing is bad. It emerged in the wake of the brutal clashes on May 6, when the OMON riot police used truncheons against participants in a rally previously agreed with the authorities. It is bad because it is being pushed through so hastily, in contrast to the usually slow procedure, and also for a specific date – the next major protest rally on June 12, which has also been agreed.” It is also bad, because the law creates a favorable environment for arbitrariness and because it contains major corruption temptations for police and judges.
“It is focused not on violence or the hurling of stones at police (that’s a criminal offense), but just presence at an undesirable place at an undesirable moment, refusal to obey demands to leave, and the chanting of some words, no more than that. These violations will entail punishment equivalent to the confiscation of one’s home or all property and belongings of an average urban dweller. The current law enforcement practices as they are, this legal norm will be accompanied by the forging of police protocols and perjury – for technical, and not political reasons,” the expert warned.