MOSCOW, January 17 (RIA Novosti) – The United States on Thursday condemned the parliament of Ukraine's decision to pass wide-ranging laws severely restricting the right to protest as undemocratic.
The measures were stiffly resisted by outraged opposition deputies in a testy, and sometimes violent, session in the Rada, but were nonetheless pushed through by the ruling pro-presidential Party of Regions.
“Both the process and the substance of the Rada's actions today cast serious doubt on Ukraine’s commitment to democratic norms,” the US State Department said in a statement following Thursday's parliamentary session.
The legislation passed by the Rada was apparently aimed at curtailing street demonstrations sparked by President Viktor Yanukovych's decision to back off from signing key integration agreements with the European Union in November.
US and EU diplomats also condemned Ukraine’s parliament for violations of procedure. Laws were approved swiftly and largely without formal debate.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt warned of “dark designs against democracy" in a post on Twitter.
The restrictive laws drew swift criticism from rights organizations.
“It is disheartening to watch the democratically elected government of Ukraine moving further away from the democratic aspirations of the people of Ukraine,” said David Kramer, head of US-based rights advocacy group Freedom House.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara described the comments as an attempt to interfere in his country’s internal affairs, while speaking at a meeting with US and European ambassadors on Friday.
“The minister expressed Ukraine’s concern about comments by certain officials from foreign states and international organizations concerning the work of Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada,” the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“Kiev considers these comments to be interference in internal affairs of our state,” the statement reads.
The bill passed by the Rada, which must be signed by Yanukovych to become law, included jail terms for protesters that block entrances to government buildings and threatens arrest for those who take part in unsanctioned demonstrations or who wear helmets or masks during rallies.
Measures also reportedly include new restrictions on Ukrainain NGOs apparently modelled on a similar law passed by Russia earlier this year, restrictions on the Internet and harsher punishments for extremism.
The parliamentary session took place amid scenes of chaos. Votes were counted by a show of hands, one deputy was pictured with bloody face after fist fights broke out between rival factions and opposition deputies occupied the rostrum in bid to stop the passage of the bill.
Opposition leaders in Ukraine compared the actions of the Party of the Regions to a coup, according to a BBC report.
Ukraine has been convulsed by mass street demonstrations since Yanukovych halted preparations to sign a long-planned free trade deal with the EU, and agreed a deal with Russia deepening economic ties.
Protesters have also occupied government buildings, and established barricades and a permanent tented camp in the center of the capital, Kiev.
Updates with Ukrainian Foreign Ministry comment