Russian Lawmakers Pass Extremism Bill

MOSCOW (AP) - Russia's lower house of parliament approved a bill aimed at stopping a rising tide of hate crimes, but opponents feared the measure might be used to muzzle political activists.

Lawmakers in the State Duma on Thursday voted 275 to 145 to pass the bill in its third and final reading. The bill defines extremism as any activity aimed at overthrowing the government, instigating social, national or religious hatred, or distributing fascist literature.

The bill is expected to be passed by the upper house and signed by President Vladimir Putin.

Kremlin officials have said law enforcement agencies need new legal tools to deal with neo-fascist organizations and skinheads who attack minorities. Police have long classified such attacks as simple ``hooliganism.''

Russia has seen a number of high-profile racist and anti-Semitic acts recently, including the April slaying of an Afghan interpreter by skinheads. Last month, a booby-trapped sign reading ``Death to Jews'' exploded in the face of a woman who tried to remove it from a roadside outside Moscow.

Opponents say the bill's definition of extremism is too broad and could allow police to close down activist organizations or hand out severe punishments to demonstrators holding unsanctioned protests.

Alexander Verkhovsky, vice president of the Moscow-based Panorama research center, which has published several studies of extremist movements, said police already have enough tools to prosecute extremists. Police and prosecutors simply look the other way at such crimes, he said.

He worried that the new rules could stifle legitimate political discourse.

``The bill prohibits the use of Nazi symbols. I'm sure there's a swastika depicted somewhere in this book,'' he said, pointing to a Panorama publication presented Thursday titled ``Naziism in Russia.''

About a dozen members of nationalist organizations - mostly young men with shaved heads - sat at the back of the room during the Panorama book presentation and flashed angry looks at Likhachyov until the moderator gave them the floor.