Twenty people were arrested outside of the State Duma in Russia Tuesday for protesting against a bill designed to crack down on protesters.
The polarizing bill, backed by President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party, passed through Russia's lower house of parliament. If passed, it will increase fines on unsanctioned rallies and gatherings from 5,000 rubles ($160) to 300,000 rubles ($9,000), making civil disobedience more severely punished than prostitution, storing nuclear materials or performing an abortion without medical qualification, according to the Associated Press.
Anyone unable to pay the fines will face 20 to 200 hours of community service. Additionally, those organizing a protest without government permission face maximum fines of 1 million rubles, roughly $30,000, or up to three years in prison.
The bill has moved on to the upper house, where it could be passed into law as soon as Wednesday, a week before a scheduled anti-Putin rally in Moscow.
Protests against the near-hegemonic rule of Putin have been a frequent sight in Moscow since the controversial Duma elections in December, when United Russia won 50 percent of what was believed to be a rigged vote by opposition parties and international observers. The rallies in the capital and in 60 other cities that month were the largest in Russia's post-Soviet history, and the momentum of the demonstrations has carried the movement through presidential elections in March and Putin's third inauguration in May.
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Contemporaneous with the protests was a consolidated government effort to crack down on dissent. Activists were slapped with harsh penalties, such as 18-year-old student Alexandra Dukhanina, who faces up to five years in prison for allegations of inciting violence during the unsanctioned protests in central Moscow on May 6. Other examples include the journalist Andrei Kolomoisky, who was arrested in March and charged with inciting extremism for posting a satirical video about Putin on his blog.
Then there is the feminist punk band Pussy Riot; three of the band-members could be imprisoned for seven years each for illegally performing their song Holy Mother, Throw Putin Out! in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral.
A direct signal is being made by those in power: Sit down and keep quiet! Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of the liberal Yabloko party, commented last month.
Additionally, the Kremlin has been strict about enforcing its definition of a protest -- and asserted that any political gathering of more than two people must be sanctioned by the state. Indeed, some of those arrested on Tuesday claim they were only handing out leaflets for an upcoming protest that had been approved.
It appears that the Russian regime has definitely made up its mind about its attitude toward the protest movement. It considers any street actions to be protests and intends to take the toughest possible measures against participants in these actions without conducting any meaningful dialogue with society, Igor Svinarenko wrote for Gazeta.ru last week.
In what is arguably the strictest part of the new bill, anyone with a criminal record will be prohibited from organizing protests. This would legally bar the most prominent opposition leaders -- such as Mitrokhin and activists Ilya Yashin, Alexei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov -- from leading their own political parties.
This will do nothing to stop the protests, Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader and Yeltsin-era deputy prime minister, told RIA Novosti after the bill's first hearing. It will only make demonstrators more radical.
Despite the opposition's unified voice about the new legislature, the bill has found support in Russia, especially in the wake of the violence that took place during the inauguration protests, when police and protestors engaged in a bloody clash on the streets around the Kremlin's walls.
We needed a law like this, because our previous experience is no guide to the future. Massive gatherings can create serious problems, even those with no political character ... This law has nothing to do with dictatorship, it's just a measure to make organizers feel responsible for the actions of people they have summoned into the street, Dmitry Orlov, director of Moscow think tank the Agency of Political and Economic Communications, told the Christian Science Monitor.