Medvedev vetoes law restricting protests: Kremlin
President Dmitry Medvedev Saturday unexpectedly vetoed a bill which would restrict opposition protests, in a sign of a cautious softening of Russia's hard line on demonstrations, the Kremlin said.
The new law, agreed by the staunchly pro-Kremlin parliament earlier this month, had infuriated activists who said it would further complicate the process of organising a legal protest.
The changes would notably have forbidden anyone convicted in the past of organising an illegal demonstration of putting in a request for permission to hold a protest.
The new law was agreed by the State Duma, the lower house, on October 22 and then approved by the Federation Council upper house on October 27 and only needed to be signed by Medvedev to come into force.
"I reject the law," Medvedev said in a letter to the State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov and the head of the Federation Council Sergei Mironov.
"The law... has aspects which would impede the realisation of the constitutional right of citizens to hold gatherings, meetings, demonstrations, marches and pickets," he said in the document released by the Kremlin.
Russia has been widely criticised for clamping down on civil society during the decade in power of strongman leader Vladimir Putin, now prime minister, but Medvedev appeared to enthusiastically back demonstrations.
"The holding of public meetings are one of the most effective ways of influencing the activities of state and local authorities through the expression of public opinion," Medvedev said.
The law had been passed overwhelmingly in the State Duma and was backed by the ruling United Russia party whose overall leader is Putin.
"I welcome Medvedev's step. It shows that we are not just striving in words towards the democratic standards of Europe and the United States," the leader of the For Human Rights movement Lev Ponomarev told RIA Novosti.
Veteran campaigner and head of the Moscow Helsinki Group Lyudmila Alexeyeva, said the new law would have limited the people's right to freedom of assembly.
"It is sensible that our president saw all the risks in the bill for the authorities and the senselessness of the law," she added.
Russian police have regularly cracked down on opposition demonstrations deemed to be unauthorised although some observers have detected a new climate of tolerance after the ousting of Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov in September.
Russian opposition activists succeeded in holding a rare authorised protest on October 31, an unusual moment in a country where protests have often been broken up within seconds of starting.
The Kremlin's chief ideologue Vladislav Surkov had also surprised observers last month by clearly stating that the authorities had nothing against opposition protests of 200 people in central Moscow.
The vetoed bill also included a provision compelling anyone organising events "involving a means of transport" to inform the authorities.
This appeared to be a bid to crack down on activists who have organised drives with cars with blue buckets on their roofs to mock the habit of top officials of using blue lights and sirens to move through Moscow traffic.
© 2010 AFP