Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a law that will soften the punishment for some hate crimes amid concerns over prison terms handed down to people for "liking" or reposting memes on the Internet.
The legislation, signed by Putin on December 28, will remove the possibility of a prison sentence for first-time offenders found to have incited ethnic, religious, and other forms of hatred and discord in public, including in the media or on the Internet.
The legislation is the result of a rare climbdown by President Vladimir Putin, who proposed it amid a wave of potentially image-damaging concern over the arrests and imprisonment of Russians for publicly questioning religious dogmas or posting, reporting, or "liking" memes or comments that authorities say incited hatred.
Under the legislation, first-time offenders will face administrative instead of criminal prosecution, meaning they would be fined, do community service, or be jailed for up to 15 days.
A person who is deemed to have committed a second, similar offense within a year will then face criminal prosecution and the possibility of two to five years in prison.
But all offenders, including those found guilty for the first time, will still face up to six years in prison if their incitement to hatred involves violence, the threat of violence, the use of their official position, or is committed by a group, the bill says.
Putin proposed the change in early October, following a string of cases in which Russians were charged for publishing material -- sometimes satirical or seen by many as harmless -- on social networks such as VKontakte and Facebook.
The bill was approved by lawmakers in both chambers of parliament, the State Duma and the Federation Council.
Reaction to the new legislation has been mixed, with Kremlin critics warning that the government will still retain many tools for suppressing dissent and limiting free speech.
On October 2, Putin signed a law toughening punishment for those who refuse to remove information from the Internet deemed illegal by a court.