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Russian parliament passes 'gay propaganda' ban

The Russian parliament on Tuesday passed two controversial bills that impose jail terms for people promoting homosexual "propaganda" to minors and those who offend religious believers amid fears the measures will be used to persecute the opposition to Vladimir Putin.

Ahead of the vote, gay activists staged a kissing protest outside the parliament but they were outnumbered by several hundred supporters of the bill, some carrying religious icons.

A police spokesman said around 20 were detained in ensuing scuffles.

The bill against "homosexual propaganda" to minors sailed through the State Duma lower house of parliament in a 436-to-0 vote with one abstention.

Critics fear the measure will be used to justify the repression of gays amid rising homophobia in Russia.

The controversial bill bans "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations" to minors by Russians and foreigners as well as media organisations.

It makes it an offence to say that gay relationships are equal to heterosexual ones.

If individuals use media or Internet for such "propaganda" they can be fined up to 100,000 rubles ($3,000), while organisations can be fined up to one million rubles and can be closed down for up to 90 days.

The bill also targets foreigners and says foreign nationals who use media or the Internet for propaganda can be fined up to 100,000 rubles and can also be held in police cells for up to 15 days and be deported.

According to another bill, passed in a 308-to-2 vote, "public actions expressing clear disrespect for society and committed to the goal of offending religious feelings of the faithful" would be punishable with jail terms of up to one year and fines of up to 300,000 rubles.

The same actions committed in places of worship would be punishable by up to three years in prison and a fine of up to 500,000 rubles.

The bill was proposed after five Pussy Riot members belted out a "punk prayer" against Putin in a Moscow cathedral last year.

The stunt exposed fault lines in the predominantly Orthodox country, with critics saying the punk rockers offended the faithful and supporters saying their counter-culture performance targeted Putin and the Church's close ties to the Kremlin.

After the Duma passes a bill in its third reading, it must then be passed by the senate and is finally signed into law by Putin.

Rights activists and Western governments have criticised both bills as part of an unprecedented crackdown on dissenters after Putin returned for a third term last year.

"This fits in perfectly with the course towards repressive politics that has been openly taken by our president and our parliament," veteran rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva told AFP, referring to both bills.

"All these repressive draconian laws are passed by the new Duma in order to use them selectively against those who are undesirable to the authorities," she said ahead of the vote.

"The draft law would only raise the level of intolerance in Russian society," said the New York-based Human Rights Watch, referring to the ban on "homosexual propaganda."

But the bill's supporters say traditional relations need to be protected by the government.

"Traditional sexual relations are relations between a man and a woman," said one of the bill's authors, Yelena Mizulina of the Kremlin-friendly A Just Russia party.

Supporters of the bill punishing those who offend religious believers say churchgoers will now know that the state will protect them.

"Those who do not believe in God should not enter churches and especially dance there," said Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party.

Two Pussy Riot members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, are serving two years in prison after being convicted last August on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.