ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - Lawmakers in Russia's second largest city, St Petersburg, passed a bill on Wednesday imposing fines for spreading gay "propaganda" among minors, a law critics said could be used to clamp down on the homosexual community.
The municipal legislation was backed by local deputies of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. It still requires the approval of the city's governor before taking effect - which is expected over the next few weeks.
Homosexuality, punished with jail terms in the Soviet Union, was only decriminalised in Russia in 1993, though much of the homosexual community remains largely underground as anti-gay prejudice runs deep.
The new legislation would impose a fine of up to 5,000 roubles for individuals and 500,000 roubles for companies spreading what the bill calls "propaganda" that could "damage the health, moral and spiritual development of the underaged".
"The bill is faulty from the legal point of view, and it is an attempt to violate the rights of homosexuals," said Olga Lenkova, spokeswoman for the sexual minorities rights organisation Vykhod.
She said that, because the bill did not spell out what would amount to unlawful propaganda, the legislation might be used to ban gay rights demonstrations. She also said it failed to give clear instructions to police officers, who will have to make an ultimate decision on enforcing the legislation.
A local deputy from United Russia, Vitaly Milonov, defended the initiative, saying it sent a signal that Russia will not tolerate liberal Western ideals.
"The bill's critics want to follow a neoliberal path, introduce sexual education ... and allow same-sex couples to adopt children, just like in some European countries," Milonov, one of 26 deputies backing the law, told Reuters.
Five deputies voted against and one abstained.
Numerous attempts to hold gay protests in Moscow, ruled illegal by the authorities, have ended in multiple arrests and clashes with ultra-Orthodox believers who say homosexuals should be punished or treated in hospital for their "illness".
In 2010 the European Court of Human Rights fined Russia for banning homosexual parades in Moscow, in what gay rights activists described as a historic victory.
Reporting by Liza Dobkina; Writing By Alexei Anishchuk; Editing by Alessandra Rizzo