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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Extremism Bill Passes Key 2nd Reading

A Kremlin bill on combating extremism passed its crucial second reading in the State Duma on Thursday, with critics cautioning that the latest version gives the state even more power to suppress public protest than did the original draft.

Pro-Kremlin centrist factions supported the bill, which passed with a 226-126 vote, while liberal parties were split. The Communists voted unanimously against the bill, as they had during the first reading, held June 6. The presidential envoy in the Duma, Alexander Kotenkov, said he was pleased by the vote and predicted the bill would become law and go into effect by July.

The Kremlin has pushed persistently for the enactment of anti-extremism legislation, especially since a wave of racist attacks -- many of them attributed to skinheads -- earlier this year.

More than 100 amendments to the bill were submitted in the past two weeks, said Pavel Krasheninnikov, head of the Duma's legislation committee. He said the version passed Thursday was a step up from the original text, thanks in part to a fuller definition of extremism.

Lawmakers threw out one of the most controversial definitions from the bill's original list of "illegal activities" construed as extremism -- "hindering the legal activities of government authorities." Several other concerns voiced by the bill's critics -- who include rights advocates, liberal politicians and Communists -- were addressed as well.

While only the courts have the right to disband an organization suspected of extremism, its activities, under the revamped bill, can be suspended by the Justice Ministry or prosecutors. In the earlier draft, other unspecified government agencies also had this right.

An article that made Internet providers responsible for the content of their clients' web sites was also struck.

Additionally, the bill now stipulates that political parties will be held responsible for extremist statements made publicly by their leaders if such statements "are not explained" within five days. It was not clear what kind of explanation would be acceptable. It also outlaws the distribution of extremist literature and propaganda, explicitly naming the works of Nazi and Fascist leaders.

Critics of the bill, however, said it had become even more ambiguous and open to abuses than before.

Lev Levinson, a Duma aide and human rights activist, said the bill does not clearly define some of the offenses it lists, such as "jeopardizing state security," which can result in a prison term. He said no such crime is mentioned in the Criminal Code.

"If most of the articles in the first draft largely overlapped with the Criminal Code, with its more or less exact definitions, after the second reading they became unclear, making it possible to prosecute each and every Russian citizen," Communist Sergei Reshulsky said.

Reshulsky also said the bill's definitions of extremism introduced the idea of inciting "social hatred," in addition to racial, ethnic and religious strife.

"Imagine people going out to protest against power cuts and cursing the wealthy town bosses. Under the bill, they are criminals and subject to prosecution," said Reshulsky, whose faction staunchly opposed the idea.

Vladimir Pekhtin, head of the Duma's pro-Kremlin Unity faction, defended the bill, saying it had to be harsh by definition: "This law has been forced to respond to violence with violence."