Russia's lower house of parliament on Friday approved a controversial bill that brands NGOs receiving funding from abroad as "foreign agents", a law activists fear the Kremlin will use to target critics.
MOSCOW- The legislation, condemned by both the European Union and Washington, was passed by the State Duma with 374 votes in favour, three against and one abstention in the third and final reading -- just minutes after the second reading also sailed through.
A breach of the law by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) would be punishable by hefty fines or jail time.
The deputies also passed another controversial law making libel or slander a criminal offence punishable by a fine of up to 5 million rubles ($152,000), voting 238 in favour to 91 against.
Both bills are almost certain to be approved by the upper house before being signed into law by President Vladimir Putin, who last year accused the US State Department of funding protests against him.
The bills are seen by many analysts as setting up a legal infrastructure for a crackdown on the opposition.
Critics have argued that the term "foreign agent" implies spying for a foreign government and would harm the image of many human rights and environmental groups working in Russia.
The final two readings of the hugely contentious NGO bill were rushed through the largely pro-Putin chamber on the final day of its spring-summer session, despite protests from both Russian and Western rights groups.
Opposition deputy Ilya Ponomarev of the Just Russia party ridiculed the bill, saying it had made him a foreign agent because of his efforts to help the victims of last weekend's devastating floods in southern Russia.
"I have for sure become a foreign agent as I gathered donations for Krymsk and 1,000 people sent money from abroad," he told the Duma.
"The law is one step towards the degradation of civil society and aimed at setting citizens against each other," he added.
Adopting this law is not right, it is aimed at creating a schism in society."
Putin on Tuesday voiced support for both bills, promising more money to the NGOs from the state budget and saying that libel should not incur jail time, as the lawmakers had initially proposed.
Opposition deputies say that the libel bill, which was introduced just days ago, effectively "outlaws dissent" in the country. It especially singles out libel against judges, prosecutors and investigators.
"It will be used to prosecute people who are not happy with the government," said senior Communist MP and former prosecutor Yury Sinelschikov, complaining of the lack of time to properly study the bill.
The bill raised some eyebrows as the charge was decriminalised as recently as last year as part of a drive by the former president Dmitry Medvedev to liberalise Russia's criminal code.
One of the bill's authors, Pavel Krashennikov, said libel inflicted "psychological violence" and led to family dramas and even suicide.
The majority United Russia party has been mocked for blindly following Kremlin's orders even if they contradict one another.
"Why did they need to make one decision six months ago and then reverse it six months later?" said Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora human rights association of lawyers, which takes on cases seen as political.
"These games don't end well," he told AFP.
The libel charge had historically been used only by government officials to punish critics. "The authorities are becoming unpredictable."
"I'm sure libel is becoming a criminal charge because of the slogans 'Putin is a thief' and 'United Russia is a party of swindlers and thieves'," he added, a a reference to two of the opposition's favourite slogans.
"The authorities don't know how to defend themselves, and the only method is a punishing criminal policy."
Several journalists from well-known publications picketed the Duma building in Moscow in protest against the bill.