MOSCOW — Russia's upper house on Wednesday approved a controversial bill that brands NGOs that receive funding from abroad as "foreign agents", a law activists fear the Kremlin will use to target critics.
The Federation Council, seen as a rubber-stamping body, overwhelmingly backed the bill with 141 votes for, one opposing and one abstaining on its last session before the summer break.
The broadly worded bill says that non-governmental organisations have to register as foreign agents if they take part in "political activities in Russia, including in the interests of their foreign sources."
Those who fail to register face fines of up to 300,000 rubles ($9,000) and could have its members jailed for up to two years.
The bill defines political activities as those aimed at "influencing decisions by state organs, aimed at changing government policies... and also in forming public opinion with those aims."
"He who pays the piper calls the tune," said Senator Konstantin Tsybko during the debate.
The bill covers NGOs that receive money or property from foreign countries, whether from government agencies, organisations or private citizens.
Critics have argued that the term "foreign agent" implies spying for a foreign government and would harm the image of many human rights and environmental groups working in Russia.
The Russian authorities argue that rights organisations have nothing to fear from the bill.
"These are laws that are in the interests of civil society. They are not against anyone," Irina Yarovaya, one of the bill's authors from the ruling United Russia party, said last week.
The bill also appeared to have public support.
A poll by state-owned VTsIOM published in Kommersant daily on Wednesday found more than 60 percent of citizens saw it as "absolutely unacceptable" or "rather unacceptable" for NGOS funded from abroad to take part in politics.
"It is easier to explain problems as the intrigues of an enemy from without," Yan Rachinsky of Memorial human rights group told Kommersant Wednesday.
In an extraordinary legislative marathon, the Federation Council also passed a vital bill on Russia's WTO entry and several other bills that have provoked fears of a crackdown on opposition groups.
It swiftly passed a bill giving the government powers to blacklist websites and force their owners or providers to close them down, following protests including a shutdown of Russian Wikipedia.
"Such blacklists exist in all countries with stable democracy... We are not pioneers here," said Senator Lyudmila Narusova.
After protests from Russia's top Internet companies, the authors narrowed the bill to blacklist only sites with child porn, information on making and selling drugs and psychotropic substances, and giving advice on suicide.
The Senate also backed with 143 votes a bill returning criminal charges for slander and libel, making them subject to a jail term of up to five years, reversing legislation backed by then-president Dmitry Medvedev.
The head of the presidential council on human rights, Mikhail Fedotov, had appealed to the Federation Council to postpone the votes on the bills to allow more public debate.
Speaker Valentina Matviyenko said she had sent a copy of Fedotov's letter to each member, but the presidential envoy to the Senate told the members they should only view it as his personal opinion.
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