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19 Jan, 2014 00:41

West, Ukraine trade blows over Kiev's new public order laws

West, Ukraine trade blows over Kiev's new public order laws

The US and EU have slammed Ukraine for the raft of “undemocratic” laws, including the so-called “anti-rally” bill, adopted amid ongoing anti-government protests. Kiev, in response, rebuked the West for what it considers foreign interference.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich signed into law a bunch of "controversial" bills banning unsanctioned gatherings and imposing multiple restrictions on mass demonstrations, media, and internet.

The bills, drafted by lawmakers from the ruling Regions Party and approved by the Ukrainian parliament on Thursday, permit the arrest of protesters who wear masks or helmets and erect tents or stages without permission from the authorities.

The new legislation also toughens penalties for the blocking and seizure of state buildings, bans motorists from forming convoys of more than five vehicles, criminalizes libel and the distribution of extremist materials, including via the internet. Nonprofit organizations receiving funding from abroad are now obliged to register as “foreign agents”.

Unidentified men break the door of the Kiev City State Administration (Kiev City Council) building during a rally held by supporters of EU integration in Kiev, December 1, 2013. (Reuters / Valentyn Ogirenko)

The measures have stirred a wave of harsh criticism from western politicians and rights organizations and outraged the Ukrainian opposition. The laws are widely seen as the government’s crackdown on street protest, known as EuroMaidan, that have gripped Kyiv and several other cities since November, when Yanukovich refused to sign an association agreement with the EU.

Human Rights Watch demanded Saturday the Ukrainian parliament “immediately” repeals the new legislation, including the bill on “foreign agents”.

A similar stance was voiced by Amnesty International which said the legislation “passed at record speed without discussion” was Ukraine’s “new charter for oppression.”

“These amendments are a serious blow to basic freedoms, association, and expression,” said Yulia Gorbunova, Ukraine researcher at the organization as published on its official website. “They are obviously a response to the recent protests and are the biggest setback to rights in Ukraine in years.”

Earlier, US Secretary of State John Kerry expressed concern over the “extremely disturbing” and “anti-democratic maneuver.” Speaking on Friday, he said that the “legislation that was rammed through the Rada without transparency and accountability violates all the norms of the OSCE and the EU.”

“A true democracy cannot function without dialogue, compromise, the right to peaceful dissent, and a legislature that enjoys the people’s trust,”
the US State Department commented in a statement.

A protester uses tear gas against riot police during the storming of the Viktor Yanukovych Presidential office in Kiev during a mass rally of the opposition on December 1, 2013. (AFP Photo / Genya Savilov)

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton called on Yanukovich to revise the legislation and to bring it into line with Ukraine's international commitments.

European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy Stefan Fule said he was “shocked” by Ukraine’s “disappointing turn-around.” The politician warned that disrespecting democratic principles will have an impact on freedoms of citizens and Kiev’s relations with the EU.

“There is only one question left after newly signed laws - quo vadis [Latin for "Where are you going?] Mr President?” Fule wrote on his Twitter page.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) urged Kiev to veto the legislation “which might be arbitrarily interpreted and lead to disproportionate restrictions on media freedom, stifling debate and critical views.” The body’s Chairperson-in-Office, Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter said he was concerned about the newly adopted laws.

Protesters guard a barricade set on the Independence Square during a non-stop protest of the Ukrainian opposition on December 20, 2013 in Kiev. (AFP Photo / Sergey Supinsky)

Kiev hit back at criticism saying that the laws that drew such widespread condemnation are similar to laws existing in many other European states. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara said that remarks made by a number of foreign officials are interference in the country’s internal affairs and urged them to be objective and balanced in their assessments.

“We stress that the bills…are aimed at implementing a number of norms that already exist in the laws of a lot of European countries, meet commonly recognized democratic standards and international practices and are compatible with the commitments within the OSCE framework,” the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said in its comment, as cited by Interfax.

The ministry also said it was surprised by Burkhalter’s reaction and expressed hope that “the Swiss Chairmanship of the OSCE will adhere to principles of objectivity and impartiality, which are the most important precondition of successful political chairmanship of this organization.”

The head of Party of Regions in the parliament, Aleksandr Efremov emphasized that none of the new legitimately adopted laws violate any democratic norms. He said that all the bills were based on European, Canadian and American laws.