Russia’s parliament has given initial backing to a bill banning homosexual “propaganda” among children that could lead to gays being fined for demonstrating or kissing in public, a move condemned by the US and rights groups.
The 388-to-one vote in the first of three readings on Friday came hours after police detained more than 20 mostly young opponents who were staging a “kiss-in” protest outside the building of the State Duma lower house.
The nationwide proposal is the latest in a rapid sequence of restrictive legislation voted through by parliament since Russian President Vladimir Putin returned to power last year in the face of wide-scale protests.
The ruling party bill is based on local laws already passed in Putin’s native city of Saint Petersburg and five other Russian regions, and aims to shield Russians aged up to 18 from what its authors view as dangerous ideas on freedoms spread by Western-backed advocates and social media.
“Just look at what is happening in Spain. Just look at what is happening in France! Of course we need this law,” ruling United Russia deputy Dmitry Sablin said.
In Washington, US Department of State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said: “We are deeply concerned by this draft legislation in Russia that severely restricts freedom of expression and assembly for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals and, indeed, for all Russians.”
London-based group Amnesty International also condemned the proposed law, with David Diaz-Jogeix, deputy director of Amnesty’s Europe and Central Asia program, saying: “This law is an attack on the right to freedom of expression.”
“There is no legal definition in the Russian law of what constitutes ‘propaganda of homosexuality’ and the law could be interpreted very loosely. They are going to punish people for something which is perfectly legitimate — expressing themselves, being themselves,” he added.
Outside the Duma on Friday, a group of opponents embraced and kissed their same-sex partners in defiance of the bill’s proposals, their third such action there in a week. Once again, police moved in to break up the protest.
Witnesses said officers detained 20 supporters and opponents of the bill as small scuffles broke out.
Homosexuality was only decriminalized in Russia after the end of the Soviet era and top officials continue to express homophobic views in public.
Russia’s leaders repeatedly refer to gays in official language as “people of a non-traditional sexual orientation.”
A 2010 survey by the Levada Centre found that 74 percent of respondents thought homosexuality was either “immoral” or “mentally deficient.”
The introduction of a local law in Saint Petersburg last year led to a boycott of the former imperial capital by international gay rights groups, while US pop star Madonna handed out pink ribbons at a concert in the city.