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Ukraine leader, defying West, signs laws against protests

Source: Reuters - Fri, 17 Jan 2014 21:06 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* New laws signed ahead of planned new rally on Sunday

* Yanukovich sacks chief of staff, gives no reason

* Foreign minister rejects Western criticism of laws

* U.S. describes action as wrong and anti-democratic (Adds Kerry comments)

By Richard Balmforth

KIEV, Jan 17 (Reuters) - Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich on Friday signed into force a set of tough new laws that would ban virtually all forms of anti-government protests despite an outcry from Western governments which have criticised them as anti-democratic.

The presidential website listed the laws, which were rushed through parliament by Yanukovich's supporters on Thursday.

Yanukovich triggered major pro-Europe rallies in the former Soviet republic when he walked away from signing a landmark free trade deal with the European Union in late November in favour of closer economic ties with Russia, Ukraine's Soviet-era overlord.

These rallies rapidly spiralled into mass anti-government protests that brought hundreds of thousands on to the streets of the capital Kiev.

Several hundred protesters are still camped out in the main Independence Square and on the city's main thoroughfare. Several hundred others are camped out 300 metres away in City Hall.

Heavy-handed action by riot police to break up the protests in December failed and brought condemnation from the United States and Europe.

The new laws ban any unauthorised installation of tents, stages or amplifiers which have all been features of the protests that play out day and night on Kiev's Independence Square. People and organisations who provide facilities or equipment for such meetings will also be liable to a fine or detention.

The laws foresee prison terms of up to 15 years for "mass violation" of public order.

TENSIONS

Apart from targeting public protests, the laws also are similar to Russia's on registration of foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs), categorising them as "foreign agents" if they are funded from abroad.

Yanukovich's decision to speedily sign the laws seemed certain to add tension to a new rally in Kiev which the opposition has called for Sunday.

Though the protests do not appear to have threatened Yanukovich's grip on power, an indication of tensions within his close entourage came with an announcement that he had sacked his powerful chief-of-staff, Serhiy Lyovochkin.

The president's office gave no reason for the move.

Lyovochkin was rumoured to have wanted to step down shortly after riot police dispersed student protesters with stun grenades and batons on Nov. 30, a move which brought tens of thousands out on to the streets the next day. But these reports were subsequently officially denied.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara on Friday rebuked the West over its criticism and said it was "considered in Kiev 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 Kiev, Jan Tombinski, and U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt.

"I am deeply concerned by the events in Kyiv (Kiev)," Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, said in a statement, adding that the legislation was "restricting the Ukrainian citizens' fundamental rights".

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the course taken by Yanukovich was "a dead end ... Repression is no answer to a contentious, political debate".

In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the move was disturbing and wrong.

"The steps that were taken yesterday are anti-democratic, they're wrong, they are taking from the people of Ukraine their choice and their opportunity for the future," Kerry told reporters after a meeting with his Greek counterpart.

"We will continue to stay focused on this issue, but this kind of anti-democratic maneuver is extremely disturbing and should be a concern to every nation that wants to see the people of Ukraine be able to not only express their wish but see it executed through the political process," he added. (Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton in Washington. Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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