(CNSNews.com) – Russia’s State Duma, dominated by the party loyal to President Vladimir Putin, passed a controversial bill late Tuesday providing for harsh fines for unsanctioned political protests, following an unusual mini-filibuster by opposition members of the traditionally compliant lower house of parliament.
The move came two days before U.S. lawmakers consider a bill that would sanction Russian officials responsible for violations against human rights advocates and anti-corruption activists.
Named for Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who died in custody in 2009, the bipartisan legislation would set up a public list of rights violators who would be denied U.S. visas or have their assets frozen. The Kremlin has warned of retaliation and the Obama administration is not supportive.
The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011 will be marked up by the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday, while parallel Senate legislation has been referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Putin’s recent return to the position he held from 2000-2008 has prompted fears of fresh attacks on civil liberties in Russia.
The Russian bill passed overnight bans any unsanctioned public rallies that could disturb the peace or block traffic, with fines of more than $9,000 for violations by citizens – a sixty-fold increase – and twice that for legal entities. (According to the official RIA Novosti news agency, the average Russian earns around $900 a month, although wages in Moscow and St. Petersburg are higher.)
The use of social media to draw attention to an unauthorized gathering will also be a punishable offense. Other restrictions include a ban on protestors covering their faces while special venues for rallies are envisaged in every region of the country. Critics say the legislation will not stop protests but deepen divisions in Russian society.
Lawmakers from the pro-Kremlin United Russia party introduced the measure after police and protestors clashed in Moscow on the eve of Putin’s May 7 inauguration. The bill was rushed through the legislative process in a bid to have it enacted before anti-Putin “March of Millions” rallies planned for June 12, Russia Day.
In an attempt to delay the move, opposition lawmakers proposed and read out in full almost 400 amendments, an unusual tactic in what has long been regarded as a rubber-stamp parliament.
But after more than 11 hours of debate the bill passed by a 241-147 vote – more than the 226-vote majority required in the 450-member State Duma. United Russia holds 238 seats.
The unelected upper house, the Federation Council, is expected to debate and pass the bill on Wednesday, following which it will go to the president’s desk.
During the State Duma debate, several dozen protestors were arrested outside, including Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of the liberal opposition Yabloko party which is not represented in the current parliament. Mitrokhin, who has called the bill “totalitarian,” was released hours later, and said he planned to picket the upper house on Wednesday.
Inside the chamber, United Russia faction leader Andrei Vorobyev defended the bill as a measure designed to “make rallies civilized and ensure people’s safety.”
But Gennady Gudkov, a lawmaker from the opposition party A Just Russia – which holds 64 seats – warned it would put the country on a path towards civil war and “massive repression.”
He said the legislation amounted to an annulment of article 31 of the Russian Constitution, which states that Russian citizens “shall have the right to assemble peacefully, without weapons, hold rallies, meetings and demonstrations, marches and pickets.”
The Communist Party, the second largest in the State Duma with 92 seats, also opposed the bill. Party leader Gennady Zyuganov earlier called it “deeply provocative.”
Even a council set up during the tenure of former President Dmitry Medvedev to advise the Kremlin on human rights issues has voiced concerns, indicating it would ask Putin to veto the legislation if passed.
Sergei Magnitsky, an attorney for a Western private equity fund, alleged tax fraud worth hundreds of millions of dollars by Russian tax and law enforcement officials and was then himself arrested and accused of tax evasion and fraud. He died in custody, after allegedly being beaten and denied medical treatment.
The bill named for him before the U.S. Congress would impose a visa ban and asset freeze against Russian officials suspected of involvement in his death.
The Senate version extends the provisions beyond that specific case, to cover officials “responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations” against human rights advocates and whistleblowers.
Some supporters want the measure to become law before the administration normalizes trade relations with Moscow, following its approval last December of Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO).
In order for U.S. exporters to benefit from Russia’s WTO accession, Congress is being asked to repeal the application to Russia of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a Cold War-era provision that linked trade to free emigration for Jews and other religious minorities.
Without its repeal, U.S. companies would be placed at a disadvantage even as other countries were benefiting from increased access to the Russian economy.
Some critics of the Kremlin say repeal should only come after appropriate alternative legislation is enacted.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said at a hearing last March that it was time “to stop giving Moscow one concession after another and getting virtually nothing in return.”
“That [Jackson-Vanik] amendment has long been a symbol of U.S. commitment to human rights and democracy in Russia,” she said. “Removing Russia from its provisions would be interpreted in Moscow and elsewhere as a seal of approval from the U.S. Congress, even as the human rights situation in Russia continues to deteriorate.”
Heritage Foundation scholar Ariel Cohen wrote Tuesday that “the U.S. needs to take new measures to protect human rights in Russia and elsewhere before moving on to normalizing trade relations with Moscow.”
“Targeted legislation like the Magnitsky Act would be an effective way to encourage Russia to respect the rights of its citizens,” he said.