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Parliament approvial of strict rules on public protests

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31 Mar 2004 18:00:52 GMT
Russian Duma moves to curb demonstrations

(Updates with fresh quotes, details of the draft)

By Oleg Shchedrov

MOSCOW, March 31 (Reuters) - Russia's parliament gave initial approval on Wednesday to stricter rules on public protest that opposition leaders, already with little voice in the legislature, say could clear them off the streets as well.

The State Duma lower house, where President Vladimir Putin's supporters have had a huge majority since a general election in December, passed on its first reading a bill that would outlaw rallies and pickets in most public places.

Liberals and Communists branded it a blow against democracy just two weeks after Putin won a second term by a landslide.

"The bill is aimed at eliminating the right of citizens for peaceful meetings, demonstrations and pickets granted by the ...Russian constitution," the liberal Yabloko party said.

"This bill effectively rules out any possibility for holding pickets, demonstrations and other public events not favoured by the authorities," said environmental lobby group Greenpeace.

The bill, which faces two more Duma readings, bans gatherings outside official buildings, embassies, offices of international organisations and public buildings like schools, hospitals, stadiums, concert halls and houses of worship.

The draft also forbids protests near major roads, pipelines and industrial sites which could pose an environmental risk.

The government has justified the move, saying that public events near such sites could threaten their security. Critics say the proposed law would finally kill off a fledgling civil society by silencing political opposition and public protest.

Putin's first four years in power have been marked by the silencing of most of Russia's independent media and Kremlin pledges to restore strong powers to the state.

The pro-Putin United Russia party won more than two thirds of the Duma's seats in elections last December. The opposition was reduced to little more than a symbolic presence.


Putin's re-election, supported by nearly all media, raised fresh Western concerns about Russia's commitment to democratic values, a dozen years after repressive Soviet rule collapsed.

Between tsars and commissars via bloody revolution, Russia has virtually no tradition of peaceful protest. Demonstrations now are frequent but mostly small and ignored by the authorities and Russia media. Critics say the bill will end even those.

"This would be the end of political life in the streets," Sergei Reshulsky, a senior Communist, said of the legislation.

Greenpeace, renowned for its high-profile publicity stunts, said the new rules would make public protests pointless.

"There is no use holding protests in locations allowed by the bill because there will be no one to address," it said.

United Russia leader Boris Gryzlov defended the bill, saying that away from banned areas organisations would be able to stage protests after simply informing authorities. Formal permission, he said, would no longer be required.

But critics pointed to a clause allowing officials to block any protests if "their aim contradicted the constitution, generally accepted norms of public morality and federal law".

Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, joined by one of the Duma's few remaining liberals, Vladimir Ryzhkov, said he would challenge the law in the Constitutional Court, though it is rare for the judges to overturn legislation backed by the Kremlin.

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