Russian legislation that will soften the punishment in some hate-crime cases has advanced amid concerns over prison terms handed down to people for "liking" or reposting memes on the Internet.
The bill, approved by the State Duma in its third and final reading on December 19, 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.
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.
Following approval in the Duma, or lower parliament house, the bill is expected to be passed by the upper house -- which is also dominated by the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party -- and signed by Putin.
Under the legislation, first-time offenders would 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 would 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, would 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.
Activists described those cases as part of an ongoing government crackdown on online speech and accused the Russian authorities of using the laws to stifle dissent.
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 deemed illegal by a court from the Internet.