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Putin Proposes Softening Punishment For First-Time Hate-Crime Offenders


Russian President Vladimir Putin waves to the crowd at the Russian Formula One Grand Prix in Sochi on September 30.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has proposed softening the punishment in some cases for inciting hatred, apparently responding to concerns over prison terms handed down to people for "liking" or reposting memes on the Internet.

An amendment Putin submitted to parliament on October 3 would 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.

First-time offenders would face administrative instead of criminal prosecution, meaning they would be fined, do community service, or be jailed for a short period of time.

If a person committed a similar offense within a year after his or her administrative punishment, he or she would then face criminal prosecution and the possibility of two to five years in prison.

In recent years, human rights activists have expressed concern over the arrests and imprisonment of Russians for publicly questioning religious dogmas and posting, reporting, or liking memes or comments that authorities say incited hatred.

Putin's proposal follows a string of cases in which Russians have been charged for publishing materials, sometimes satirical, to social networks such as VKontakte and Facebook.

It comes two weeks after the Supreme Court sharply narrowed when people can be charged under the country's hate-crime and extremism legislation, saying that simply "liking" or reposting material on social media does not alone constitute a crime.

Kremlin critics have described the cases as part of an ongoing government crackdown on online speech and accused the authorities of using the laws to stifle dissent.

An explanatory note posted along with the proposed amendment says it aims to free offenders from criminal prosecution if their actions are "committed a single time and do not pose a serious threat to the foundations of constitutional order and security of the state."

Offenders, including first-time offenders, would still face up to six years in prison if their incitement to hatred involves violence, the use of their position, or is committed by a group.

The proposal seems certain to pass, as the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party dominates both houses of parliament.

Senior lawmakers in the lower house will discuss it on October 8, State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said.

On October 2, Putin signed into law a bill toughening punishment for those who refuse to delete from the Internet information deemed illegal by a court.

Under the legislation, refusing to delete such information can be punished with hefty fines and up to 15 days in jail.

With reporting by Novaya Gazeta, Interfax, and RTVi
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