MOSCOW Police detained some 20 activists protesting on Tuesday outside Russia's parliament where deputies debated a Kremlin-backed bill to hike fines for violations during rallies, a proposal the opposition says is aimed at smothering dissent.
The controversial bill proposed by the ruling United Russia party following the biggest protests against President Vladimir Putin's 12-year-rule is all but guaranteed to be passed this week by the State Duma lower house.
It would dramatically raise maximum fines to 1 million roubles ($30,000) for organizers and 300,000 roubles ($9,000) for citizens participating in demonstrations at which public order or city rules are deemed to have been violated.
In an unusually tense debate in the Duma, long a rubber-stamp body for the Kremlin, opposition lawmakers argued into the night proposing around 400 amendments to mark their disapproval before the bill was approved in a second preliminary reading.
The bill passed with only 15 votes more than the 226 votes needed. The legislation becomes law only after a third reading.
Critics say the bill, which has inspired outrage among the opposition protest movement, is being fast-tracked by the Kremlin to be adopted ahead of a planned mass protest in the capital on June 12.
"This is a monstrous bill which will essentially ban people from protesting," Sergei Mitrokhin, an opposition leader whose Yabloko party has no seats in parliament, said outside the Duma. Moments later, he was roughly detained with other activists, many wearing the white-ribbon symbol of the anti-Putin movement.
Putin, who largely ignored a wave of winter protest that weakened his grip on his return to the presidency, signaled support for the bill in remarks at a summit with European Union leaders on Monday.
In a sign he would brook no Western criticism on human rights or democracy, the 59-year-old former KGB officer defended tougher rules governing protests as being in line with European norms.
Gennady Gudkov, a Duma deputy with the opposition Just Russia party, said the bill's language gave authorities too much room for interpretation of what constituted a violation.
"Any gathering of people in the street can be declared a demonstration by the authorities so you will have to be careful when you attend a wedding or a funeral that you don't end up in a police van by the end of the night," Gudkov to Reuters.
Russian courts would ultimately rule on fines handed to violators of the law.
Following fierce criticism by opposition lawmakers, some of the most controversial proposals, such as fines for Internet users who spread the word about rallies, were dropped.
But Kremlin critics say the proposed law remains draconian. It still stipulates fines for "public calls" to attend a rally, if later any of the attendees violate order, and a 30,000-rouble ($900) fine for participants of unauthorized rallies.
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In addition to increasing fines from the current maximum of 5,000 roubles ($150), the law would prohibit demonstrators from covering their faces and carrying weapons, including rocks or paving stones.
Opposition leaders and rights activists, including the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch, say the law violates the 31st article of Russia's constitution on the right to free assembly.
Taking the podium in the Duma session on Tuesday, Gudkov said the bill reflected the Kremlin's "fear of the people."
"This is a draconian law ... it is the path toward civil war, it is the path toward massive repression and we all know how that ends: in blood, poverty and revolution," Gudkov said.
Moscow city rules already require a permit for gatherings and police often use force to break up unsanctioned protests. Activists fear the law will be abused by police seeking legal cover to crack down on demonstrators.
The Kremlin's human rights adviser said he would urge Putin to veto the bill when it was initially proposed last month, unless it was rewritten.
On the eve of the Duma debate, the human rights council's chair Mikhail Fedotov said in an open letter that the law goes against Russia's constitution. ($1 = 33.4765 Russian roubles)
(Additional reporting by Alexander Reshetnikov, Nastassia Astrasheuskaya and Darya Korsunskaya; Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel and Thomas Grove; Editing by Michael Roddy)