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11 Jun, 2013 13:14

Duma approves criminalization of insulting religious feelings

Duma approves criminalization of insulting religious feelings

The Lower House of the Russian parliament has approved a controversial bill which criminalizes insulting people's religious feelings. It could come into effect as early as July if passed by the Upper House and the President.

In the current version of the bill, insulting religious feelings in public can be punished with up to three years in prison. Other possible sanctions include fines up to half a million roubles (about $15,600) and compulsory correctional work.

Before the final reading MPs amended the draft adding criminal responsibility for obstructing the activities of religious organizations. Such a felony will be punished with up to one year in prison and those convicted will be barred from taking certain official posts for two years.

Premeditated and public desecration of religious objects or books will also be punished – by fines of up to 200,000 roubles (over $6,200).

The current bill is promoted by a large part of the Russian political establishment and strongly backed by the Russian Orthodox Church whose leader has publicly accused some unnamed forces of staging attacks on faith and religion in the country.

The bill is intended to deter such incidents as feminist punk band Pussy Riot's impromptu appearance in Moscow's main cathedral in February last year, when they attacked the church and its alleged strengthening ties with Russian authorities and President Vladimir Putin personally.

Three band members were apprehended and sentenced to two years in prison each for aggravated hooliganism, despite numerous objections from Russian activists and foreign rock and pop stars. One of those convicted has already been released on probation and two others remain behind bars.

The case showed that the Russian legal system needed to deal with growing religious sentiment in society as did the subsequent events when vandals started felling memorial crosses and covering church walls with graffiti in protest at the arrests and sentence.

Significant part of the society still oppose the bill saying that it contradicts the basic principles of a free and secular state, and the freedom of expression provided by the Constitution. The leader of one of Russia’s oldest political parties Yabloko, Sergey Mitrokhin, took part in protests on Tuesday picketing the State Duma office with a poster that compared the controversial bill with the Spanish Inquisition. 

The supporters of the bill, such as deputy head of the Lower House Committee for Religious Organizations Mikhail Markelov, claim that it is a reply to dangerous tendencies in society. “People who practice traditional forms of religion constantly face threats of various kinds. This includes the stunts by the Pussy Riot group, this includes the cemetery vandalism, and this also includes attempts on lives of spiritual leaders,” Markelov told reporters.

The MP added that according to opinion polls the majority of Russians supported the bill protecting believers’ feelings. He added that such laws were a recognized international practice and had been  enforced in many European countries.