Ukraine chides West for criticism of new anti-protest law

Reuters News
Posted: Jan 17, 2014 12:04 PM

KIEV (Reuters) - Ukraine on Friday rebuked the West for what it called foreign interference in its internal affairs after an outcry over legislation rushed through parliament to curb anti-government unrest in the ex-Soviet republic.

The U.S. State Department and senior European Union politicians voiced deep concern with the measures, which still need President Viktor Yanukovich's signature and foresee prison terms of up to 15 years for "mass violation" of public order.

Demonstrators first hit the streets in Kiev in November after Yanukovich backpedalled at the last minute from a free trade deal with the EU in favor of closer ties with Kiev's Soviet-era overlord, Moscow.

Protests quickly spiraled into an all-out movement against Yanukovich's government, attracting as many as 800,000 people at its peak. Numbers have dwindled since, but several hundred people remain camped out on Kiev's central square or are occupying public buildings like City Hall.

On Sunday, at least 50,000 people demonstrated against Yanukovich in Kiev.

The law, sped through parliament by Yanukovich's allies on Thursday, winning support from 235 of 450 lawmakers, sparked an uproar from the opposition and protesters.

Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara "expressed concern" over the foreign 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 on Friday with the EU's ambassador to Kiev, Jan Tombinski, and U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt.

The new law further bans any unauthorized installation of tents, stages or amplifiers in public places - all of which remain on prominent display in the protest tent city on Independence Square in the Ukrainian capital.

"I am deeply concerned by the events in Kyiv," 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".

Parliament's vote on the law, whose text ran to more than 100 pages, was taken by a sudden show of hands that caught the opposition off-guard.

It followed a Thursday court ban on protests in Kiev, which boosted opposition fears of an imminent police crackdown.

(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk in Kiev and Alexandra Hudson in Berlin, editing by Gabriela Baczynska and Mark Heinrich)