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Russia to impose harsh jail terms for insulting religion

Russia on Tuesday was preparing to pass a bill imposing jail terms of up to three years on those who offend religious believers after an anti-Vladimir Putin stunt in a church polarised the predominantly Orthodox country last year.

The Duma lower house was expected to pass the bill in its third and final reading.

According to the bill, “public actions expressing clear disrespect for society and committed with the goal of offending religious feelings of the faithful” would be punishable with jail terms of up to one year and fines of up to 300,000 rubles ($9,200).

The same actions committed in churches and other places of worship would be punishable by up to three years in prison and a fine of up to 500,000 rubles.

Among other forms of punishment to be meted out for the transgressions are compulsory community service and forced labour.

The controversial bill was proposed after several members of rock band Pussy Riot belted out a “punk prayer” against strongman Putin in a landmark Orthodox cathedral last year.

The stunt exposed fault lines in the predominantly Orthodox country.

Pussy Riot critics say the punk rockers offended the faithful, while their supporters said their counter-culture performance was aimed at Putin and underscoring the Church’s close ties to the Kremlin.

Two Pussy Riot members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, are serving two years in prison after being convicted last August on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.

Supporters of the new measure say the bill will show church-goers they are protected by the state.

“Those who do not believe in God should not enter churches and especially dance there,” Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, said in televised remarks. “This is sacrilege.”

Irina Yarovaya, a United Russia lawmaker who has supported a string of controversial bills passed in recent months, said that crimes aimed at offending the feelings of the faithful targeted the entire society.

Critics say that by protecting the faithful, the state will discriminate against atheists and will use the legislation to persecute dissenters.

“This law groups the faithful into a special privileged group and they will be protected better than any other groups,” Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of the liberal Yabloko party, said in quotes released by his party.

“This is a path towards the Inquisition.”

Also Tuesday, the parliament was preparing to pass a harsh law introducing fines and short jail terms for people who promote homosexual “propaganda” to minors.

Critics say both pieces of legislation are part of an unprecedented crackdown on dissenters unleashed by the Kremlin after Putin returned for a third term last May.