Russian lawmakers pass 'foreign agents' bill

Russia's lower house of parliament on Friday approved a controversial bill that brands NGOs receiving funding from abroad as "foreign agents", a law activists fear the Kremlin will use to target critics.

The legislation, condemned by both the European Union and Washington, was passed by the State Duma with 374 votes in favour, three against and one abstention in the third and final reading -- just minutes after the second reading also sailed through.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that breach the law and fail to join the "foreign agents" register would be punishable by fines of up to 300,000 rubles ($9,000) or even two years of prison for members.

The deputies also passed another controversial law making libel or slander a criminal offence punishable by a fine of up to 5 million rubles ($152,000), voting 238 in favour to 91 against.

Both bills are almost certain to be approved by the upper house before being signed into law by President Vladimir Putin, who last year accused the US State Department of funding protests against him.

The bills are seen by many analysts as setting up a legal infrastructure for a crackdown on the opposition.

Critics have argued that the term "foreign agent" implies spying for a foreign government and would harm the image of many human rights and environmental groups working in Russia.

The final two readings of the hugely contentious NGO bill were rushed through the largely pro-Putin chamber on the final day of its spring-summer session, despite protests from both Russian and Western rights groups.

Opposition deputy Ilya Ponomarev of the Just Russia party ridiculed the bill, saying it would make him a foreign agent because of his fund-raising for the victims of last weekend's devastating floods in southern Russia.

"I have for sure become a foreign agent as I gathered donations for Krymsk and 1,000 people sent money from abroad," he told the Duma.

"The law is one step towards the degradation of civil society and aimed at setting citizens against each other," he added.

Rights group Amnesty International slammed the bill as "further stifling of civil society activism in Russia, reduction of democratic space and unlawful restrictions on freedom of association" in a statement on Friday.

Putin on Tuesday voiced support for both bills, promising more money to NGOs from the state budget and saying that libel should not incur jail time, as the lawmakers had initially proposed.

Opposition deputies say that the libel bill, which was introduced just days ago, effectively "outlaws dissent" in the country. It especially singles out libel against judges, prosecutors and investigators.

"It will be used to prosecute people who are not happy with the government," said senior Communist MP and former prosecutor Yury Sinelshchikov.

One of the bill's authors, Pavel Krasheninnikov, argued that libel inflicted "psychological violence" and led to family dramas and even suicide.

The bill raised eyebrows because the charge of slander and libel was decriminalised last year as part of a drive by then-president Dmitry Medvedev to liberalise the criminal code.

The majority United Russia party has been mocked for blindly following Kremlin orders even when they contradict one another.

"Why did they need to make one decision six months ago and then reverse it six months later?" asked Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora human rights association of lawyers.

"These games don't end well," he told AFP.

In the past, the libel law has mainly been used by high-ranking officials to put critics on trial, Chikov said, with United Russia likely to use it against its opponents.

"I'm sure libel is becoming a criminal charge because of the slogans 'Putin is a thief' and 'United Russia is a party of swindlers and thieves'," Chikov added, referring to two of the opposition's favourite slogans.

"The authorities don't know how to defend themselves, and their only method is a punitive criminal policy."

Several journalists from well-known publications picketed the Duma on Friday in protest against the bill.

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