Russia's Putin signs anti-protest law before rally
ST PETERSBURG, Russia
ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law on Friday a bill that will dramatically increase fines for people who take part in protests that violate public order rules, just days ahead of the next planned rally against his 12-year rule.
Putin told a meeting of top judges in his native St. Petersburg that he decided to sign the bill despite objections from his own human rights adviser, Mikhail Fedotov, who asked the president to veto it.
Participants in protests where public order is violated could now face fines of 300,000 roubles ($9,100) - more than the average annual salary and up from 1,000 roubles. The organizers of such rallies could be fined up to 1 million roubles.
Putin, who has largely ignored a wave of protests that weakened his grip before his return to the presidency, said the law would prevent demonstrations from turning into the sort mass unrest seen in Europe, with cars being burnt and stores looted.
"By guaranteeing some citizens the right to express their opinions, including on the streets, society must protect other citizens from radicalism," he said.
Opposition leaders said the Kremlin rushed the law through so it could be in place before an opposition demonstration planned for Tuesday and say the bill could radicalize the opposition movement.
Just hours after the law was signed, Putin's opponents took to Twitter pledging their support for the rally, dubbed the March of Millions as a sequel to the violent 20,000-strong protest on the eve of Putin's third presidential inauguration last month.
"Putin signed the law on demonstration fines. But it won't stop me personally," said a tweet from a founder of Moscow gay parade Nicolai Alexeyev, reflecting a popular message.
Rights activist Lev Ponomaryov said he believed Putin wanted to put pressure on would-be protesters by signing the bill. "I think this may cause the opposite reaction. I mean people will nevertheless come out into the squares," he said in a statement.
The Moscow mayor's office approved the route for a 50,000-person march along a central ring road followed by a demonstration on Prospekt Sakharova, the site of one the first anti-Putin protests in December, hours after the law was signed.
RIGHTS DEFENDERS OBJECT
Fedotov, chairman of the presidential Civil Society and Human Rights Council, urged Putin at the end of May to veto the law, before it was approved by both houses of parliament.
This week, Fedotov's council issued a nine-page statement offering expert conclusion on the law, which it said contradicted Article 31 of the Russian constitution that protects citizens' freedom of assembly.
"The law's main defect is that in substance it suggests criminalizing the procedure of using the basic constitutional right - the right to peacefully assemble," the statement said.
Putin's spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Fedotov would continue to chair the human rights council for now but criticized him for making his views public before the president had a chance to hear his objections.
The spokeswoman of EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, Maja Kocijancic, said on Thursday the European Union was also concerned over the possible implications of the new bill.
"The recent civic activism in Russia offers a valuable opportunity for the state to engage in a constructive dialogue with civil society, which could benefit both sides," she told journalists at an EU briefing.
"In our view regulations that discourage civic engagement are not conducive to achieve this objective," she said.
In a sign he would brook no Western criticism on human rights or democracy, Putin, a 59-year-old former KGB officer, defended the fines as being in line with European norms.
(Additional reporting by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya; Editing by Alison Williams)