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Ukraine Proposes Sweeping Crackdown on Dissent

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Ukraine's parliament rushed through wide-ranging powers Thursday to suppress opposition protests and label non-governmental organizations as "foreign agents" if they receive money from abroad.

MOSCOW, January 16 (RIA Novosti) - Ukraine's parliament rushed through wide-ranging powers Thursday to suppress opposition protests and label non-governmental organizations as "foreign agents" if they receive money from abroad.

The measures threaten jail terms for protesters who block entrances to government buildings and 15 days in detention for those who take part in demonstrations not sanctioned by the police, even if peaceful.

Protesters also face up to 15 days in detention for covering their faces with masks or helmets. People will also be detained for 15 days if they set up tents, stages or other makeshift structures without approval from city authorities.

The move is apparently aimed at the thousands of people who have joined anti-government protests on Kiev's Independence Square, known as Maidan.

The Financial Times said demonstrators faced up to 10 years in prison for blocking access to government buildings, a tactic adopted by protesters in Kiev since anger erupted over President Viktor Yanukovych's rejection of an association agreement with the European Union in November.

Yanukovych opted instead for closer ties with the Russian-led Customs Union, a move that has prompted continuous street protests.

The measures, which were introduced only on January 14, were passed by a show of hands by the pro-presidential majority, with 235 of 450 deputies in support. The parliament's electronic voting system was said to be out of use because opposition deputies were blocking it.

The package of 11 laws, which must be signed by Yanukovych, also threatens up to a year's hard labor in prison for anyone convicted of libel, including on the internet. It also aims to require all internet media to register with the authorities.

Emulating a similar controversial law in Russia, the legislation also proposes to force civil society groups and non-governmental organizations to label themselves as a "foreign agent" on all their publications If they receive any funding from abroad.

The term "foreign agent" is seen by many people as a throwback to a Soviet-era term that branded dissidents as traitors and spies for criticizing the regime.

The legislation also seeks to outlaw motorcades of more than five cars by threatening to confiscate their vehicles and revoke drivers' licences for two years if they do not have permission fro the Interior Ministry.

The move targets members of Automaidan, a pro-European movement whose members drive in motorcades around Kiev and use their cars to block riot police busses as well as access to government buildings and pretrial detention facilities where detained activists are being held.

In one of their most notable protests, thousands of honking cars with protesters drove within 350 meters (about 1,000 feet) of the president's suburban residence outside Kiev on December 29.

The bill also allows Ukrainian authorities to block online pages, if experts conclude that their content is unlawful.

Ambassadors of the United States and the European Union in Kiev said that they were concerned that the legislation was not passed with due procedure.

The reforms came a day after a court published a ban on protests in the centre of Kiev until March 8, provoking fears among opposition groups of an imminent police crackdown on the Maidan rallies. The police have denied these clams.

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