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Los Angeles Times, April 1, 2004

Russian Bill Curbing Mass Rallies Gains
Government cites security concerns in justifying the measure, but some view it as another step toward authoritarian rule.

By David Holley

MOSCOW - In a move that could push protests largely out of the public eye, Russia's lower house of parliament gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a law that would ban demonstrations from a wide range of places, including areas close to highways, government buildings and diplomatic missions.

The government has cited security concerns to justify the measure, and the bill's backers have presented it as an effort to ensure the constitutional right of citizens to hold assemblies, rallies and pickets. But critics saw the action as a fresh blow to hopes for democracy in Russia, and a sign that under President Vladimir V. Putin the country was moving in an authoritarian direction.

"This decision destroys one of the most important achievements of the early democratic years of Russia when the old Soviet law on mass rallies and demonstrations was canceled," said Pavel Gutiontov, head of the Russian Union of Journalists.

"What this law in fact achieves is for all practical purposes a prohibition to hold any mass actions in the center of Moscow."

When pro-Kremlin parties won an overwhelming majority in the State Duma in December, many observers feared that such laws would be forthcoming, Gutiontov said. The United Russia party, which backs Putin, holds more than two-thirds of the seats in the 450-seat lower house. The bill was approved 294 to 137.

A small group of protesters, numbering in the dozens, picketed outside the Duma to protest the action, carrying signs that read "We Demand Freedom of Assembly" and "No to a Police State."

The rally, carried out without advance approval from authorities, led to the brief detentions of Sergei Mitrokhin, deputy chairman of the liberal Yabloko party, and at least two of his supporters at the site, Russia's Interfax news agency reported.

Mitrokhin said later that he had spent about six hours in police custody and in court before being released.

One of the people detained with him was fined about $3 and released, and another was released without a fine because she was a minor, he said. Mitrokhin said that, as the organizer, he expected he might face a larger fine, but that decision hadn't yet been made Wednesday.

Sergei Markov, director of the Institute of Political Studies, a Moscow think tank, said the action by the Duma "will certainly narrow down and limit the rights of citizens."

"This will contribute to the diminishing of the general democratic atmosphere in the society," Markov said.

"But we shouldn't over-dramatize this. It is not a ban. It doesn't completely prohibit people from holding mass rallies and pickets."

The action is part of a trend in many countries to tighten security measures because of the threat of terrorism and recent protests by anti-globalization activists that ended in violence, Markov said. But it is also convenient for the United Russia party, he said, which "decided to make itself more comfortable and safer from public criticism."

Still, Markov did not put all blame for the measure on the pro-Putin party.

"To tell you the truth, the responsibility for this measure should be shared by our entire society, because in a decade of painful transition from socialism to where we are now, we haven't learned to use the freedoms and rights granted us in a proper way," he said.

"Now the people in general think that the more mass rallies and demonstrations are held, the worse and more chaotic their life becomes. It is important to observe that there is no massive popular protest against this measure," he added.

The bill states that rallies and protests cannot be held in "areas in direct proximity to the residences of the president of the Russian Federation and buildings occupied by federal and state authorities, foreign state offices, and international organizations that are under international protection."

It also bans any such assemblies near bridges, highways, oil and gas pipelines, hazardous-waste sites, hospitals, schools, religious centers, concert halls and stadiums.

Organizers must notify authorities of planned events no more than 15 days and no less than 10 days ahead of time. The authorities in turn can suggest alternative locations, which must be done no later than five days before the event.

Events can also be banned if their goals or forms violate the constitution or "generally accepted norms of public morality," Interfax reported.

The bill must be approved two more times by the lower house and then by the upper house, which has a record of easily approving measures supported by the Kremlin. It also requires Putin's signature.

Mitrokhin, of the Yabloko party, said the bill was a "flagrant disruption of the foundations of the constitutional structures of Russia," and he promised to fight it.

"This decision reverses one of the main provisions of the Russian Constitution by 180 degrees," he said. "The constitution unequivocally grants citizens a right to public gatherings and mass rallies, and a Duma decision is not sufficient to take this right away from us."

Mitrokhin pledged to hold rallies, lobby legislators and appeal to Putin, among other steps, in an effort to defeat the measure.

"We will complain to the Constitutional Court because it is clear to us the constitution was violated," he said. "We will go to international courts if need be. We will leave no stone unturned."

Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.


See also:

Freedom of Speech

Human Rights

Los Angeles Times, April 1, 2004

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