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Russia upper house approves 150-fold rise in protest fines

MOSCOW--The upper chamber of Russia's parliament on Wednesday approved a bill that raises fines 150-fold for people taking part in unsanctioned rallies. The legislation, which passed in the lower chamber only after unprecedented debate, now needs only President Vladimir Putin's signature to become law.

The measure has been seen as the Kremlin's harsh response to a series of street protests against Putin's 12-year rule and is part of a broader crackdown on the opposition since he returned to the presidency in May.

The Federation Council voted 132-1 to support the bill after a short debate. The only vote against came from the mother of Ilya Ponomarev, an opposition lawmaker in the lower chamber who has joined the protest movement.

On Tuesday, members of the lower chamber debated the bill for some 11 hours before the Kremlin's United Russia party rammed it through at midnight. The opposition factions in the State Duma had put forward several hundred amendments in an unprecedented attempt to stymie the bill's passage, reflecting a new willingness to stand up to the Kremlin.

The bill would jack up fines from the current 2,000 rubles to 300,000 rubles (US$9,000).

Sergei Lisovsky, one of the few upper chamber members to express concern about the bill, said it imposes disproportionally high fines on protesters but does not provide for higher penalties for police brutality.

“We're talking about citizens of our country here, and we must listen to them,” said Lisovsky. “Where is the liability for the police who can potentially do more harm to our society?”

The Kremlin wants the new bill to become law by next Tuesday when the opposition plans a major protest in Moscow.

Alexei Kudrin, a former deputy prime minister who expressed sympathy with the opposition movement last winter, said in a statement on Wednesday that the bill violates the constitutional right of assembly. He urged a review.

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