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Duma Rethinks Ban on Protests

In the wake of "serious social resonance," the State Duma's United Russia majority backpedaled from outright support of a bill banning rallies in many public places Friday, just two days after voting in favor of it.

The bill would outlaw protests near most public buildings -- from government offices to schools and concert halls -- as well as embassies, sensitive industrial facilities, main streets, railroads and pipelines.

Critics from the left and right have castigated the bill as a violation of democratic norms and an attempt to stifle freedom of expression. They also accused the bill's pro-Kremlin backers of trying to insulate themselves from unpleasant criticism by keeping protesters far from sight.

Calling the question of permitted venues "the hottest debate," Gryzlov said amendments would be made to allow protests outside seats of state power except presidential residences, which will remain off limits.

The second reading of the bill is to take place April 28, the same day as a second reading of amendments to the Criminal Code that would toughen punishments for terrorism. Both pieces of legislation also must pass a third reading and win the support of the Federation Council before the president can sign them into law.

Gryzlov noted that Pavel Krasheninnikov, United Russia deputy and chairman of the Duma's Legislation Committee, had drawn up amendments as early as Thursday, the day after 293 United Russia deputies voted in favor of the bill in its first reading. (Of the remainder of United Russia's 305 deputies, one abstained, and 11 did not vote.)

Members of the minority Communist and nationalist parties, without exception, voted against the bill, with some calling it an attack on workers and organized labor and others seeing it as a pre-emptive move by United Russia to defend its lock on Duma control from political challengers in the 2007 campaign season, since public meetings are a key means of reaching voters.

There should be fewer cases of backtracking on bills in the future thanks to a recent Duma decision, highlighted Friday by Gryzlov, to send all bills through a preliminary "zero reading" by experts who will make drafts "cleaner" before they are brought to the floor.

(The Moscow Times 05.iv.04)

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