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Ukraine

Ukraine's Harsh New Antiprotest Law Draws International Condemnation

"Euromaidan" protesters camp out in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.
"Euromaidan" protesters camp out in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

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By RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service
There has been international condemnation of sweeping legislation to curb protests in Ukraine, with the European Union and United States expressing "deep concern" over the measure.

It comes with protests continuing in Kyiv and other cities against a government volte-face on closer ties to the EU, opting instead for deeper cooperation with Russia.

Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, on January 16 passed a law that cracks down on street protesters and adopted amendments making it easier for the ruling-party-dominated legislature to strip offending members of parliament of their immunity.

According to the president's website on January 17, Viktor Yanukovych has signed the bill into law 

The parliament also amended the Criminal Code to introduce provisions recriminalizing defamation and provide additional protection for public officials from critical speech.

ALSO READ: Ukrainian Parliament Pushes Through Antiprotest Measures

The approved amendments also introduce criminal responsibility for distributing extremist materials, which are broadly defined in the law, through the media and the Internet.

"[EU] High Representative Catherine Ashton is deeply concerned by the events in Kyiv," Ashton spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic told reporters at a news conference in Brussels on January 17.

"Several pieces of legislation that were passed in Verkhovna Rada are restricting the Ukrainian citizens' fundamental rights. They have been passed very hurriedly and in an apparent disrespect of parliamentary procedures and democratic principles."

Kocijancic added that the changes hastily approved by the parliament will not help expedite the solution of the ongoing political crisis in Ukraine.

EU foreign ministers are expected to discuss the situation in Ukraine in Brussels on January 20.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele condemned the parliament's action.

Fuele "is profoundly concerned by...this legislation, which seems to go against democratic principles and limits the fundamental rights and freedoms of Ukrainian citizens," his spokesman, Peter Stano, told reporters in Brussels.

"In the view of Commissioner Fuele, this goes against Ukraine's European aspirations and goes also against the commitment stemming from the Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine, to which the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian authorities are committed and which was initialed, as you know, a long time ago," he added. "So, the changes are deeply concerning to us."

Separately, Thorbjon Jagland, the secretary-general of the Council of Europe, said the way the laws were "rushed through parliament without a proper debate is unacceptable."

He also said that "any laws adopted by Ukraine must correspond to the letter and to the spirit of its commitments taken towards the Council of Europe."

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on January 17 called the legislation "undemocratic." He said the new laws "are taking from the people of Ukraine, their choice and their opportunity for the future." He also said Washington believes the people of Ukraine "want to be associated with Europe."

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara rebuked the West over its criticism and said it was "considered in Kyiv as meddling in the internal affairs of our state," according to a ministry statement.

Kozhara, it said, made his comments during a meeting with the EU's ambassador to Kyiv, Jan Tombinski, and U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt.

'War On Civil Society'

The new legislation came as the Ukrainian government seeks to end a spate of protests -- dubbed "Euromaidan" by organizers -- that have racked the country since President Viktor Yanukovych declined in November to finalize association and economic deals with the European Union.

The protests, which at their peak in early December brought hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians onto the streets, have diminished. But hundreds of people remain camped out on the central square of Kyiv or in public buildings in adjoining streets.

Opposition politicians regularly use a stage in the square to broadcast messages of support to the protesters and the new rules, almost sure to be signed into force by Yanukovych, would make such actions illegal.

The U.S. State Department said the latest measures "cast serious doubt on Ukraine's commitment to democratic norms."

Parliament deputy Anatoliy Hrytsenko announced his resignation via Facebook on January 17, comparing Ukraine to North Korea.

Jailed former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is the leader of opposition Fatherland (Batkivshchyna) party, has urged the opposition not to allow the new antiprotest legislation to come into force.

Also on January 17, leading Ukrainian rights defenders said that by adopting the new laws, Ukraine's parliament had "declared war against civil society."

The joint statement was issued by the chief of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group (UHS) Mykola Kozyrev, UHS Executive Director Arkadiy Bushchenko, and Kharkiv Rights Group Director Yevhen Zakharov.

Ukranian opposition groups have called for a new rally on January 19.

With reporting by Reuters and RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Rikard Jozwiak

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