Russia's lower house of parliament has approved the first reading of a bill softening the punishment in some cases for inciting hatred, amid concerns over prison terms handed down to people for "liking" or reposting memes on the Internet.
The draft bill discussed on November 15 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 commits 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.
The bill must pass two more readings by the State Duma, then be sent to the upper chamber, the Federation Council, for consideration.
If approved, it would be sent to Putin for his signature before being introduced into law.
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.
The bill was proposed by President Vladimir Putin in early October following a string of cases in which Russians have been charged for publishing materials, sometimes satirical, to social networks such as VKontakte and Facebook.
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.
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.
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.