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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Slander Could Be Deemed Extremist

The State Duma will soon vote on a bill that would allow courts to shut down parties and news organizations for slandering government officials or threatening possible mass protests, deputies said Thursday.

The Duma's leadership decided Thursday to send the bill -- which includes amendments to expand the list of punishable crimes under the anti-extremism law -- to the president and the Cabinet for a review, Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov said.

It is expected to come up for a first reading by the end of this month.

Opposition politicians called the amendments an effort by a worried government to ensure the ruling class remained in power after upcoming national elections. But Gryzlov said the bill -- introduced by 14 deputies representing all the factions in the Duma -- would not punish those critical of the authorities.

One amendment, however, would make it possible to mete out tough punishment to National Bolshevik Party members for their theatrical protests. Bolshevik activists chanted "Putin is the executioner of freedom" at a newspaper conference earlier this month -- something the amendment would classify as public slander against government officials and equate with extremist activity.

Prosecutors could seek the closure of a political group if it or its members commit an offense more than once. Under existing law, parties can avoid legal action if they renounce members accused of offenses.

Under another amendment, the legal definition of extremist activity would be expanded to include "statements" that extremist activity might take place. The provision would make it a crime for news organizations to warn that a government policy might trigger mass protests, said Igor Yakovenko, head of the Russian Union of Journalists.

Yet another amendment would outlaw the printing of leaflets urging mass protests. Large protests brought to power pro-Western presidents in Georgia and Ukraine in 2003 and 2004.

The 14 deputies sponsoring the bill said in a statement on the Duma's web site that the amendments would prevent veiled attempts to stoke extremism. The deputies represent United Russia, the Communist and Liberal Democratic parties and the two factions of Rodina.

Gryzlov said the bill's expanded definition of extremist activity would not encompass legitimate criticism of the government.

Opposition deputies and other politicians sharply criticized the initiative as an attempt to silence them and reduce their chances in Duma elections next year.

"The authorities and United Russia are agonizing and taking all sorts of measures ahead of the elections to retain their positions after the vote," Communist Deputy Viktor Ilyukhin said.

United Russia, which has 304 of the Duma's 450 seats, has seen its popularity decline since it won by a landslide in 2003.

Ilyukhin, who said the amendments could come up for a first reading as early as next week, said that the wording of the proposed amendments was vague and open to interpretation.

"For example, I often say that the authorities are treating the nation boorishly. This or similar statements made in public about a certain official could be interpreted as slander if needed," Ilyukhin said.

National Bolshevik Party leader Eduard Limonov said the authorities were trying to outlaw all criticism. "This bill is definitely aimed at us because we are the most active critical force in the country," he said.

The group is well-known for its anti-Kremlin demonstrations. In December 2004, 39 Bolshevik activists in their teens and early 20s briefly seized a reception office of the presidential administration, locked themselves in and hung a poster reading "Putin, Quit Your Job!" in a window. Riot police stormed the building, beat the activists and arrested them. All but one activist were later convicted of public disorder.

Last week, three activists interrupted a conference of the World Association of Newspapers attended by Putin by shouting "Putin is the executioner of freedom" and "Russia without Putin."

Limonov said the group would continue its activities even if the proposed amendments were passed. "We cannot yield to schizophrenic initiatives like this one," he said.

Sergei Mitrokhin, deputy head of Yabloko, which failed to win Duma seats in the last elections, said the amendments would make it more difficult for opposition parties to run in 2007.

"They would cause us a lot of trouble because we are not planning to give up our oppositional rhetoric," he said. "In addition, our leaflets could be called extremist."