Insult and punishment: Russian MPs mull softer penalty for religious offenses

Insult and punishment: Russian MPs mull softer penalty for religious offenses
The State Duma suggests softening the highly-debated draft law on protecting believers’ feelings and reduce the punishment for religious offences from initially proposed up to five years of imprisonment to three.

The ‘anti-blasphemy’ bill was submitted to the Russian parliament’s lower house in September, in the wake of infamous case against the punk band Pussy Riot.

The draft law – bitterly criticized by rights activists and lawyers – passed first reading in April when MPs voted to add a new article to the Russian Penal Code.

Under the bill, public insults and humiliation of divine services as well as believers’ feelings was to be punished with  a fine of up to 300,000 roubles ($US 9,500), up to 200 hours of forced labor or up to three years in prison. Vandalism and desecration of holy sites would cost the offender up to 500,000 roubles (over $US 15,000) or up to 5 years behind bars.

Hegumen Feodosy, the Dean of the Alexander Nevsky Church of the Metochion of the St Artemy Monastery of Verkola, at a worship cross, dedicated to the memory of victims of political repressions in Arkhangelsk, cut down by unidentified vandals. (RIA Novosti)

Ahead of the second out of three required readings, the Duma’s committee on law worked out amendments to the legislation. The initial idea to add a new article to the code was dropped. Instead, lawmakers suggest amending the existing Article 148 (‘Obstruction of the Exercise of the Right of Liberty of Conscience and Religious Liberty’).

The committee also changed the wording of bill which has been slammed by opponents for being too loose and could therefore lead to outrage.

Icon of Jesus Christ slashed by a vandal in St. Georgi the Victorious church in Veliky Ustyug, brought to Christ the Savior cathedral on April 19, 2012. (RIA Novosti / Sergey Pyatakov)

Now, if new version of the bill is passed, a person could be sent to court for “public actions which indicate obvious disrespect towards society and aimed at insulting believers’ religious feelings.” An offender would have to pay up to 300,000 roubles in fines, or a sum of money equivalent to their two years’ salary. One could also be sentenced to up to 240 hours of compulsory community service or up to a year in jail.

The Duma committee also proposes that these offenses committed in places for religious ceremonies or services must be subject to fines of up to 500,000 roubles ($US15,000), or a sum of money equivalent to offenders salary for up to 3 years. Alternatively, violators may face up to 480 hours of compulsory community service or up to three years in prison.

Besides that, the lawmakers recommended to toughen criminal liability for illegal obstruction of activities of religious organizations or administration of religious ceremonies. Such violations must be subject to fines of up to 300,000 roubles. If committed by an official or with the use of force, such crimes could be punished with up to one year behind bars.

The idea to protect believers’ feelings by the law was prompted by a large number of sacrilegious situations and events that took place in 2012.  Apart from infamous Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” staged in the Moscow’s main cathedral, there were also desecration of icons, the Nazi and Satanist graffiti in churches and synagogues and cutting down of memorial Orthodox crosses in various Russian regions.

Verdict announced in trial of Pussy Riot punk group members. (RIA Novosti / Alexander Utkin)