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Moscow - Russia's parliament gave initial backing Friday to a controversial bill banning homosexual “propaganda” among minors that could lead to gays being fined for demonstrating or kissing in public.
The vote on the first reading was to be held only hours after at least 20 mostly young opponents of the bill were detained by riot police during a “kiss-in protest” outside the State Duma lower house building.
In the first of three readings, the Duma backed the measure with 388 votes in favour, one against and one abstention after a brief debate.
The strict measure is based on local laws passed in President Vladimir Putin's native city of Saint Petersburg and in several other Russian regions.
The push to agree the law on a federal level has dismayed rights activists who see the legislation in the latest in a sequence of repressive legislation against civil society to be debated by parliament.
But the Duma's family affairs committee chair Yelena Mizulina
said she backed a nationwide law that “protected minors from the consequences of homosexuality.”
“The unbridled propaganda of homosexuality anywhere you look effectively limits the child's right to free development,” said Mizulina in televised comments to journalists ahead of the bill reading.
Her comments came moments after a group of opponents held a prolonged and proud embraces with same-sex partners in open defiance of the bill. It was their third such action outside the Duma in a week and once again ended with police action.
Witnesses said officers detained 20 supporters and opponents of the bill as small scuffles broke outside the parliament building.
Homosexuality was only decriminalised 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”.
The Moscow authorities have roughly suppressed attempts to stage gay rights parades over the past seven years. A 2010 survey by the Levada Centre found that 74 percent of respondents thought homosexuality was either “immoral” or “mentally deficient”.
The bill in its current form prohibits “the propaganda of homosexual behaviour among minors”. Activists worry that the vague wording could lead to gays being fined for demonstrating or even holding hands in public.
It also sets out fines for violations of up to 5,000 rubles ($165) for individuals and up to 50,000 rubles for officials.
Legal entities such as businesses or schools would be fined up to 500,000 rubles ($16,500).
“The very fact that Russia in 2013 is discussing the possibility of banning the 'propaganda of homosexuality' is in itself the harshest of blows against our own prospects,” Andrei Babitsky, an editor of Esquire Russia wrote in a commentary for the Vedomosti business daily.
“It is hard to imagine a single issue that so clearly distinguishes between modernity and the Middle Ages,” he added.
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 and a series of fines against couples who appeared in public kissing or holding hands.
The ruling party's law formally aims to shield Russians aged up to 18 from what its authors view as the spread of dangerous ideas on freedoms by Western-backed advocates and new social media.
United Russia has enough votes in the lower house to pass any piece of legislation on its own without consulting the other parties. But Communists and other lawmakers have also expressed sympathy with the draft.
Russian state television said that members of Russia's gay and lesbian community would be invited to attend the key second hearing that is likely to be held within the next few weeks.
Draft laws move from the Duma to the upper house for a single vote before reaching Putin's desk. - Sapa-AFP