KYIV -- Ukraine's parliament has passed a sweeping antiprotest law that cracks down on street protesters.
It has also adopted amendments that make it easier for the ruling-party-dominated legislature to strip offending parliamentarians of immunity.
The moves come against a backdrop of nearly two months of pro-EU street protests prompted by the government's decision in November to suspend work on an Association Agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties to Russia.
The initiatives on January 16 immediately drew criticism from EU and European officials who said the moves endangered democracy.
EU Ambassador to Ukraine Jan Tombinski noted that the measures were pushed through by a show-of-hands approval rather than electronic counting, violating proper procedure.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said they "severely" restrict freedom.
Under the new rules, the unauthorized installation of tents, stages, or amplifiers in public places is punishable by a fine of up to $640 or up to 15 days of detention.
People and organizations providing facilities or equipment for unauthorized meetings would be liable for a fine of up to $1,275 or detention of up to 10 days.
Separately, the amendments to parliamentary regulations enable the parliament to strip deputies of immunity without preapproval by a special parliamentary committee.
On January 16, pro-government politicians defended the new measures, saying they protected the public against protests that endanger public safety or the smooth operation of public institutions.
"Peaceful protest is protected by the constitution and by applicable law," Vadym Kolesnychenko, a deputy from the ruling Party of Regions and one of the authors of the new law, told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.
"Everything associated with [posing a] risk for people is not a peaceful demonstration. Peaceful demonstration, peaceful picketing that does not paralyze the activities of state bodies or any organizations, does not need the special attention of the government."
However, rights campaigners and opposition leaders said the new measures are intended to make it easier to tar critics of the governments as enemies of the state.
"If I say that [Vadym] Kolesnychenko acts against the public interest, this is a political activity on my part," said human rights activist Arkadiy Bushchenko. "When we say to them, 'Stop torturing people in prisons,' it will be interpreted as interference in public policy. If we have a couple of dollars in our pockets, we are already foreign agents."
Ukrainian opposition politician Vitali Klitschko denounced the new measures and President Viktor Yanukovych while addressing protesters in Kyiv.
"After what happened today in parliament, where the people were deprived of their civic rights and freedoms, according to the new slipshod laws, people are not allowed to stay on the square anymore," Klitschko told supporters. "People are not allowed to put up tents anymore. People are not allowed talk about corrupted judges anymore. The person behind this dictatorship which is unfolding in Ukraine today is Viktor Yanukovych."
The Ukrainian parliament also amended the Criminal Code on January 16 to introduce provisions recriminalizing defamation and to provide additional protection for public officials from critical speech.
The amendments also introduce criminal responsibility for distributing extremist materials, which are broadly defined in the law, through the media and the Internet.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) criticized the step in a statement issued from Vienna.
The OSCE's representative on freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatovic, called on Ukrainian authorities "to stop attempts to restrict free expression and free media.”
In Washington, the U.S. State Department expressed "deep concern" over the measures, saying they "cast serious doubt on Ukraine's commitment to democratic norms."
In a statement, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, "Some of these measures will restrict the right to peacefully protest and exercise the freedom of speech, constrain independent media, and inhibit the operation of NGOs."
The measures come as the government seeks to end the protests that have racked Ukraine since Yanukovych declined in November to sign an expected free-trade deal with the European Union and instead boosted ties with Moscow, leading to billions of dollars' worth of aid and concessions from Russia.
The "Euromaidan" protests, which at their peak brought hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians onto the streets, have since diminished. But several hundred 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.
With reporting by Reuters