Ukraine criminalizes pro-EU movement by passing antiprotest law

On 16 January Ukraine’s parliament passed a sweeping antiprotest law that criminalizes almost every aspect of the pro-EU protest movement. Pro-government Party of Regions (PoR) politicians defended the new measures, saying they protected the public against protests that endanger public safety or the smooth operation of public institutions. The opposition said this act was illegal, accusing the ruling party of a coup.

Under the law, backed by 235 of 450 MPs, the unauthorised installation of tents, stages or amplifiers in public places will be punished by a fine of up to €470 or by up to 15 days in detention. People and organisations who provide facilities or equipment for unauthorised meetings will be liable to a fine of up to €940 or detention of up to 10 days. For people deemed guilty of “mass violation” of public order, they envisaged up to 15 years’ jail. Another bill gives the government the authority to block access to the internet. The government adopted other amendments that make it easier for the ruling-party-dominated legislature to strip opposition parliamentarians of immunity. In a direct echo of anti-NGO laws in Russia, they also force NGOs which receive foreign funding to register income and classify them as “foreign agents.”

“Coup d’état”
The measures were pushed through in a matter of minutes when lawmakers simply raised their hands, despite the protests of opposition deputies who had earlier blocked the speaker's platform to try to disrupt the voting. Pro-government politicians defended the new measures, by saying the laws are aimed to prevent further escalation of the ongoing political crisis. "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 said.

But the three main opposition leaders described the move as "illegitimate", saying the pro-presidential MPs had decided to use voting by a show of hands after realising they did not have enough support. Udar party leader Vitali Klitschko condemned it as a "coup d'etat", while Arseniy Yatsenyuk, one of the leaders of the Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party, warned that Ukraine was now bracing for another "wave of protests".

The measures come as the government seeks to end the protests that have racked Ukraine since President Viktor Yanukovych declined in November to sign an expected Association Agreement with the European Union and instead boosted ties with Moscow, leading to billions of dollars' worth of aid and concessions from Russia. 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.

International criticism
EU and US diplomats and international NGOs have voiced strong dismay after Ukraine’s parliament passed the law. 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 US state department voiced its "deep concern" that the controversial measures had been passed. “Both the process and the substance of the Rada’s actions today cast serious doubt on Ukraine’s commitment to democratic norms,” said the US state department in a statement. The EU's ambassador to Ukraine, Jan Tombinsky, said "norms should be adopted through proper procedures, otherwise the credibility of democratic institutions and of the legal system is at stake".

Sources: EUobserver, RFE/RL, The Guardian, BBC

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