Russia embraces religious intolerance with draconian blasphemy and anti-gay laws

THE  Lower House of the Russian parliament has approved a controversial bill which criminalises insulting people’s religious feelings. According to this report, 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 punishments include fines up to half a million roubles (about £10,000) and compulsory correctional work.

Before the final reading MPs amended the draft to make it a criminal offence to obstruct  the activities of religious organisations. 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 (about £4,000).

The current bill was 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.

The 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.

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 outside the State Duma office with a poster that compared the controversial bill with the Spanish Inquisition.

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. He said:

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.

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 recognised international practice and had been  enforced in many European countries.

A young gay Russian, part of a protest against the anti-gay bill, is hit by an egg thrown by a member of the Russian Orthodox Church

A young gay Russian, part of a protest against the anti-gay bill, is hit by an egg thrown by a member of the Russian Orthodox Church

In another controversial move, Russia’s lower house passed a law banning gay “propaganda”, a measure that human rights groups say has already fueled attacks on homosexuals as President Vladimir Putin pursues an increasingly conservative social agenda.

As parliament debated the bill, gay activists who had taken part in a “kissing protest” outside parliament to demonstrate against the law were harassed and pelted with eggs by anti-gay protesters. About 20 of them were arrested.

The law bans the spreading of “propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations” to minors and sets heavy fines for violations. It passed with 436 votes in the 450-seat lower house, the Duma. One deputy abstained and no one voted against.

Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, who was beaten and arrested four times for participating in successive Moscow Gay Pride parades, from 2007 to 2011, said in a statement:

This new law is symptomatic of Putin’s increasing authoritarianism and his crackdown on civil society. It violates the Russian constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression, and the European Convention on Human Rights, which Russia has signed and pledged to uphold.   Although the law is ostensibly aimed at prohibiting the dissemination of so-called ‘gay propaganda’ to young persons under 18, in reality it will criminalise any public advocacy of gay equality or same-sex HIV education where a young person could potentially see it.  

In practice, gay marches, festivals, posters, magazines, books, welfare advice and safer sex education will be at risk of criminal prosecution. It is a blanket censorship of any public expression of same-sex love or gay human rights.   This is likely to result in the purging of many books, films and plays from libraries, schools, theatres and cinemas, including many classic works of art and literature.   It is one of the harshest laws against gay freedom of expression anywhere in the world.

Other critics say the bill – a nationwide version of laws already in place in several cities including Putin’s hometown of St Petersburg – would in effect ban all gay rights rallies and could be used to prosecute anyone voicing support for homosexuals.
Said Viktoria Malyasova, 18, standing outside the Duma:

There is already enough pressure and violence against gays, and with this law it will only continue and probably get worse. I may not be gay but I came to stand up for my rights and the rights of other people to love whom they want.

The gay rights protesters outside the Duma on Tuesday were far outnumbered by around 200 anti-gay activists who surrounded them, chanting “Russia is not Sodom”, singing Orthodox Christian prayers, crossing themselves and throwing rotten eggs.

Putin, who has embraced the Russian Orthodox Church as a moral authority and harnessed its influence as a source of political support, has championed socially conservative values since starting a new, six-year term in May 2012.

The 60-year-old president denies that there is discrimination against gays, but has criticised them for failing to increase Russia’s population, which has declined sharply since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Hat tip: Canada Dave