A controversial presidential bill on combating
extremism was pushed through the State Duma by pro-Kremlin factions
Thursday, despite criticism from the Communists, liberal lawmakers
and human rights advocates, who say the measure will give the
government too much power to suppress public protest.
Justice Minister Yury Chaika, who lobbied the bill in parliament, told the deputies the legislation was sorely needed and asked them to pass it in all three readings before going on vacation at the end of the month. The bill passed its first reading Thursday with a 271-141 vote and was accompanied by amendments to the Criminal Code. The pro-Kremlin Unity and People's Deputy factions, centrist Fatherland-All Russia and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party voted for the bill unanimously. All members of the Communist and agro-industrial factions voted against it, and other factions were split.
Government officials have persistently reiterated the need for anti-extremism legislation, especially since a wave of racist attacks -- many of them attributed to skinheads -- earlier this year. Other recent attacks include the explosion last month of a booby-trapped anti-Semitic sign, which injured a woman who tried to remove it. The bill defines extremism as "illegal activities" aimed
at the violent takeover of power, terrorism, incitement of ethnic and religious hatred, public demonstration of Nazi symbols, hindering the legal activities of government authorities and at other goals, many of which are already classified as illegal under existing legislation.
Under the bill, only a court can disband an organization classified as extremist, but the official body responsible for registering the organization can suspend its activities pending a court decision.
The bill also forbids extremist slogans on the Internet, but rights campaigners have criticized the provision as ambiguous and divorced from existing legal concepts. The vote drew heated debate Thursday. Arguing in support of the bill, Justice Minister Chaika said the government often fails to cope with extremism because of legal loopholes and that new legal tools are needed to deal with neo-fascist organizations. However, Yabloko Deputy Sergei Popov retorted that existing legislation is sufficient to combat extremism; the problem is a lack of enforcement, Interfax quoted him as saying.
Communist Viktor Zorkaltsev, head of the Duma committee on public organizations, said the bill is "anti-democratic" and lays the groundwork
for politically charged criminal investigations, Interfax reported. Zorkaltsev echoed criticism by human rights groups, saying the bill's definition of extremism is too vague and enables the authorities to treat any organized public group -- from striking teachers to protesting environmentalists -- as extremists.
Another Communist lawmaker, Valentin Romanov, said the bill also makes it possible to prosecute undesirable media outlets. For example, he said, news reports about skinheads could be construed as propaganda of extremism.
The Communists have been fighting attempts to introduce anti-extremism measures since the days of former President Boris Yeltsin, fearing they would be among the first groups to be targeted and, possibly, disbanded under the law.
The president's envoy in the Duma, Alexander Kotenkov, tried to reassure the Communists, saying the bill is not aimed at opposition groups that act within the bounds of the law.
Both Chaika and Kotenkov promised they would take into consideration all amendments submitted for the second reading. Some of the key changes called for by the Union of Right Forces faction included bestowing the right to suspend an organization's activities exclusively on the courts and omitting the provision that classifies "hinderances" to the activities of government bodies as extremism. The faction ultimately supported the bill 29-2.
Human rights activists were displeased by Thursday's vote. Lev Ponomaryov, head of For Human Rights, told Interfax that after the bill goes into law, police would target innocent people in order to improve their statistics.
"I will not be surprised if teenagers get arrested on the
streets just for having their heads shaven," he said.