UK & World News
Russia Passes 'Gay Propaganda' Ban Bill
Russia's parliament has overwhelmingly backed plans for a new bill banning 'homosexual propaganda', which campaigners say could lead to gay couples being fined for kissing or holding hands in public.
Members of the Duma burst into applause as the heavily pro-Kremlin chamber approved the first reading with 388 votes in favour, one against and one abstention.
At least 20 young people were arrested by riot police after staging a "kiss-in protest" outside the parliament building.
They were pelted with eggs by Orthodox church activists, who strongly support the legislation, claiming it will help to boost Russia's dwindling birth rates.
Witnesses said police seemed to be focusing their efforts on detaining the gay rights campaigners.
The wording of the bill is, perhaps deliberately, vague. In its current form it prohibits "the propaganda of homosexual behaviour among minors" - but it does not define precisely what this means.
Activists fear the legislation could be used to fine same-sex couples for public displays of affection, such as kissing or holding hands, and that there would also be a nationwide ban on gay rights rallies.
A regional version of the law, which is already in force in President Vladimir Putin's native St Petersburg and several other Russian regions, has already been used in an attempt (ultimately dismissed by the courts) to prosecute Madonna for comments made at one of her concerts, and a member of Mr Putin's party is threatening to sue the pop star Lady Gaga over her latest show in the city.
Under the proposals, individuals could be fined 5000 rubles (£105), those deemed 'officials' 50,000 rubles (£1,050) and businesses and schools up to 500,000 rubles (£10,500).
Supporters claim the law will protect children from 'unnecessary confusion'.
Yelena Mizulina, chair of the Duma's family affairs committee, said she backed the legislation that "protected minors from the consequences of homosexuality".
She said: "The unbridled propaganda of homosexuality anywhere you look effectively limits the child's right to free development."
A Stalin-era law criminalising homosexuality - which was punishable by up to five years in prison - was only repealed in Russia in 1993, and various top officials have continued to express openly homophobic views in public.
A poll by the Levada Centre in 2010 found that 43% of Russians thought homosexuality was immoral, while 32% said homosexuals were 'mentally deficient'.
But some have questioned the damage this new law could do to the country's image.
Andrei Babitsky, editor of Esquire Russia, wrote in a recent commentary for the Vedomosti Business Daily newspaper: "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.
"It is hard to imagine a single issue that so clearly distinguishes between modernity and the Middle Ages."
United Russia politician Dmitry Sablin said: "We live in Russia, not Sodom and Gomorrah.
"Russia is a thousands-years-old country founded on its own traditional values - the protection of which is dearer to me than even oil and gas."
Russian state television said members of the country's gay and lesbian community would be invited to attend the crucial second reading of the bill, which is expected to be held within the next few weeks.