MOSCOW Russia's lower house of parliament gave preliminary approval on Friday to a law that would brand many rights and campaign groups "foreign agents", a move opponents say is an attempt to stifle protests against Vladimir Putin.
The law, presented by the president's United Russia party for the first of three readings, would tighten controls on non-governmental organizations that receive foreign funding by forcing them to submit reports on their activity twice a year.
Critics say the law, approved by 323-4 in the 450-seat chamber, is part of a crackdown on civil liberties and the opposition movement that has been protesting against Putin's return to the presidency for a new six-year term.
Although the Kremlin denies planning any crackdown, NGOs are also worried because the term "foreign agents" has a hostile ring to it reminiscent of the Cold War.
"This is an odious, repressive bill that seeks to halt the wave of public protests," said Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader and one of the organizers of the protest wave that began last December after alleged fraud in a parliamentary election.
The draft law could put at risk the work of organizations such as Amnesty International, which campaigns for human rights, and Transparency International, a corruption watchdog, he added.
It follows rapid passage of a law increasing fines for protesters as well as raids on the homes of protest organizers in the wake of Putin's return to the Kremlin on May 7.
The law on NGOs requires three readings in the Duma and one in the upper house. Under it, any NGO that receives foreign funding and refuses to register as a "foreign agent" and comply with the new law could face suspension for up to six months without a court order.
"The law contradicts the Russian Federation's constitution, which calls for political diversity and ensures every citizen has the right to participate in managing state affairs," said Mikhail Fedotov, head of Putin's advisory human rights council.
"GUARANTEE OF OPENNESS"
But United Russia, which has a simple majority in the Duma, said the law was needed to guarantee openness about NGOs.
"The bill does not ban foreign financing, it only calls for honesty. As one says one's name when introducing oneself to others, NGOs should in the same way be saying who they are when they introduce themselves," United Russia deputy Irina Yarovaya, who co-authored the bill, told the Duma.
In other developments that worried the opposition on Friday, Communist lawmaker Vladimir Bessonov was stripped of his parliamentary immunity and may face prosecution for allegedly beating a policeman at a rally last December.
Opposition deputies said they feared the move, proposed by United Russia, set a precedent which might pave the way for them to be prosecuted if they are arrested at rallies.
United Russia also proposed restoring prison sentences for libel. If approved, this could allow Alexei Navalny, one of the opposition leaders, to be prosecuted if he repeats his slogan describing the party as "crooks and thieves."
"It is hard to escape the feeling that all this is a response to growing criticism of the authorities, including by Mr Navalny," said political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin.
GOLOS, an organization that receives foreign funding and compiled allegations of fraud in the parliamentary election, said it believed it was the target of the draft law on NGOs.
"Honestly, I have no doubt that this is primarily aimed against GOLOS," said Grigory Melkanyants, the organization's deputy director.
Golos plans to open an account to collect donations from Russians in the hope it can end its need to seek grants abroad - mainly from the United States and Europe.
The NGO law is likely to be rammed quickly through the State Duma and the Federation Council upper house, underlining its importance to Putin as he tries to stifle the biggest protests against his rule since he first rose to power in 2000.
"It won't even take a month," said Tamara Morshchanova, another member of the Kremlin human rights council, whose recommendations have made little impact on Putin.
The ruling party says the draft law matches similar legislation in the West and is not part of a broader crackdown.
Putin has now been in power for 12 years as prime minister or president, and could rule the world's largest country for the next 12 years if he is re-elected in 2018.
He accused Western governments last year of trying to influence the December election by funding NGOs in Russia, and GOLOS came under fire last year in a program shown by a pro-Kremlin television channel that alleged it supported opposition parties. GOLOS has denied this.
Putin, a former KGB spy, has also called NGOs "jackals" who count on foreign support.
Civil rights activists have said they will ask the U.S. Congress to add the authors of the bill to a list of Russian officials under threat of receiving visa bans for their alleged involvement in the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who died in police custody in 2009.
(Writing by Timothy Heritage, Editing by Andrew Osborn)