Russia's ruling United Russia party has toughened its controversial draft law to curb street rallies, in an apparent attempt to stem the growing protest movement against President Vladimir Putin.
On May 30, the committee on constitutional law and state building in the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, approved a raft of amendments that further tighten the screws on protesters.
The initial draft legislation, which proposed fines of up to 1.5 million rubles ($48,000) for violations of the law governing rallies, was approved by the full Duma in its first reading earlier this month.
The amendments, which go to a vote in the full Duma next week, reduce the fines to a maximum of 500,000 rubles ($15,390), but also broaden the list of punishable offenses at street gatherings.
Under the amendments, people could be fined if their gathering causes material damage to state property or is adjudged to have impeded vehicles and passers-by.
Individuals taking part in public gatherings will no longer be able to cover their faces. This would include people wearing a surgical mask or Muslim veil.
No Masks Or Slogans
Opposition lawmakers say other amendments, backed by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, would make the protest "walks" held by antigovernment demonstrators in recent months virtually impossible to organize.
Citizens who invite others to take part in public rallies or walks via the Internet, for example, would also face stiff fines under the amendments.
Russia's opposition has staged a series of unprecedented mass rallies against Putin's rule, including protracted sit-ins and protest walks, since last December's parliamentary polls, which were marred by allegations of fraud.
People would even be penalized if political slogans are pronounced at their gathering, even if the event is of a private nature, such as a wedding.
Critics say the new bill aims at weakening Russia's already beleaguered opposition.
"It looks like these repressive amendments will be implemented at least in the near future now that massive protests are suddenly fashionable," says Moscow-based political analyst Vladimir Pribylovsky. "The authorities are afraid of these protests and clearly want to curb them."
Deputies are scheduled to vote on the bill in a second reading, which is scheduled for June 5.
The opposition says the Kremlin seeks to have the bill signed into law in time for mass antigovernment rallies planned for June 12.