Russian investigators are pressing ahead with a controversial defamation probe following a complaint by Yelena Mizulina, a lawmaker best known for her crusade to promote what she considers "traditional values."
Mizulina, who heads the parliament's committee on family, women, and children, has authored a number of controversial initiatives over the past year, including a new law targeting homosexuals that came into force last month.
The legislation, which slaps hefty fines on anyone deemed to promote "nontraditional sexual relations" to children, has sparked not only international outrage but also an active debate on what kind of sexual practices are regarded by the Russian authorities as "nontraditional."
The barrage of caustic jokes it has generated on the Internet has riled Mizulina, who now accuses several journalists and public figures of defaming her by claiming she is bent on eradicating oral sex in Russia.
Socialite and opposition activist Ksenia Sobchak, who was interrogated last week after making such a claim on Twitter, says investigators repeatedly asked her why she thought Mizulina held such views.
Journalists Yelena Kostyuchenko and Olga Bakushinskaya, as well as former Deputy Prime Minister Alfred Kokh, have also been questioned.
"Two lieutenant colonels from the Russian Investigative Committee clarified for three hours details about Mizulina's gay-oral phobias and my own relation to this," Kokh wrote on his blog.
Sobchak said a dozen people are on what she branded the "Mizulina List."
No Laughing Matter
While posts ridiculing Mizulina continue to flood the Internet -- including a scathing musical parody
-- the current investigation is no laughing matter.
Russian youths beat a gay-rights activist during a protest against the country's new "homosexual propaganda" laws in Moscow in June.
Insulting an official is an offense in Russia that carries fines of up to 40,000 rubles ($1,200) and up to one year of community service. Libel is punishable by a fine of up to 1 million rubles ($30,000).
Internet users accuse the authorities of seeking to silence one of the last arenas of free speech in Russia.
The news agency Rosbalt says investigators asked for the names of journalists who have written about Mizulina and denounced the request as the first "attempt by a Duma deputy to interfere in the agency's editorial policies" in its 12-year existence.
An online petition
launched by stand-up comedian Yury Khovansky, who is calling for the lawmaker to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, has already gathered more than 60,000 signatures.
If signed by 100,000 people, the petition will be submitted to the State Duma.
"What she is doing, and this 'Mizulina List,' is an unprecedented threat to freedom of speech," Khovansky says. "If people are now prosecuted and fined for expressing their opinion on the actions of officials -- who are actually elected by the people -- you can just imagine what will happen to media freedom and openness more generally."
Mizulina, whom detractors have nicknamed "The Inquisitor," has tirelessly warned against Russia's moral and demographic decline. She and her committee have penned a string of initiatives aimed at instilling traditional values in Russians, including a ban on cursing and a tax on divorce.
But critics have dismissed such measures, particularly the antigay law, as harmful.
Andrei Yurov, a member of the presidential human rights council, published an open letter
last week charging Mizulina with inciting hatred in Russian society. "My aim," he wrote," is to draw your attention to how strongly your words and deeds are influencing society, generating almost exclusively aggression and hatred from all sides."
Written by Claire Bigg, based on reporting by Dmitry Volchek of RFE/RL's Russian Service