Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has signed into force a set of tough new laws against public protests despite an outcry from Western governments which have criticised them as anti-democratic.

Catherine Ashton, EU foreign policy chief, said on Friday she was "deeply concerned'' by the legislation and called on Yanukovych to revise it. Hours later, the official website of Ukraine's president said the laws were signed by Yanukovych.

Steffen Seibert, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, told reporters in Berlin that the decision would "inevitably have consequences for the cooperation with the European Union.'' He did not give further specifics.

In a statement released late on Thursday, the US State Department called the laws "undemocratic" and said they contradict Ukraine's aspiration to a European future.

New restrictions

New legislation introduces punishment of up to five years in prison to people who blockade public buildings, and possible arrest of protesters who wear masks or helmets.

Other provisions passed by the country's parliament on Thursday introduced the term "foreign agent" to be applied to NGOs that receive even the smallest funding from foreign countries, simplified prosecution of lawmakers, and made dissemination of slander on the Internet punishable by a year of corrective labour.

Carl Bildt, Swedish foreign minister, said on Twitter on Friday that the new bills lead to a situation where "there can be no business as usual with Kiev."

The opposition has staged nearly nearly two months of protests in a central Kiev square in response to Yanukovych's ditching a key pact with the European Union and instead striking a strategic partnership with powerful neighbour Russia.

Source: Agencies