A bill introducing hefty fines or a prison term for public humiliation of religious rites or other insults to believers’ feelings has passed a first reading in the Russian parliament’s lower house.
330 MPs voted for the bill and seven voted against, with one abstention.
The State Duma voted to amend the Russian Criminal Code with a new article mandating punishment for deliberate and public insults to believers’ feelings, with fines of up to 300,000 rubles (slightly less than $10,000), and up to 200 hours of forced labor or up to three years in prison.
Desecration or destruction of objects significant to religious cults would be punished with fines of up to 500,000 rubles (over $16 thousand), and up to 400 hours of forced labor or up to five years in prison.
The bill was introduced jointly by all four parliamentary parties. Initially, the bill was advanced in September 2012, half a year after a group of women calling themselves the feminist punk band Pussy Riot staged a gig in Moscow’s main cathedral. Three of these women were detained, tried and sentenced for two years in prison for aggravated hooliganism, and one later had her sentence suspended. The case prompted wide public discussion both on the limits of freedom of expression and on the proper punishment for attacking other people’s beliefs.
One of the key authors of the draft law, the head of the Lower House Committee for public and religious organizations Yaroslav Nilov (LDPR), said in a press interview that existing Russian laws already had a complete definition of such insults, and that the main concept of the new bill was to tighten violations concerning the religious feelings and sacred sites.
Nilov also said law enforcers should not face any difficulties in establishing that such behavior is insulting: “If you enter a temple wearing a cap and start shouting swear words this will be an insult, and if you simply wear a cap in a church, this would not be criminally prosecuted,” the MP told Kommersant Daily.
Russia and neighboring Ukraine witnessed a string of acts of vandalism in which people felled crosses and vandalized church walls as an act of protest.
However, the initial version of the bill was criticized by the Presidential Council for Human Rights, as well as the government. The officials noted that the bill lacked precise formulas, and often doubled existing criminal articles. President Vladimir Putin also said that the issue should be approached with caution, and the draft was sent for a re-working.
The current draft was not changed significantly, but its sponsors say they expect human rights activists and other critics to submit their suggestions and amendments before a second reading of the bill.
Russia’s top official human rights body, the Presidential Council for Human Rights, has already issued a negative review of the draft and suggested that only minor changes be made to existing laws instead of introducing new articles. The human rights officials also criticized the bill’s focus on “religions that are inseparable from Russia’s historical legacy,” claiming that such a formulation lacked precision and was possibly discriminatory against some confessions.