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Spain sets stiff fines for unauthorized protests

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MADRID (AP) - The Spanish government Friday approved draft legislation that sets fines of up to 30,000 euros ($40,800) for offenses such as burning the national flag, insulting the state or causing serious disturbances outside parliament.

The bill presented by Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz has been heavily criticized by opposition parties, judicial and social groups as an attempt by the conservative government to muzzle protests against its handling of the severe economic crisis.

The measures, which update a 1992 law, also include fines of up to 1,000 euros for insulting or threatening police officers during demonstrations.

Similar fines are planned for disseminating photographs of police officers that endanger them or police operations.

Spanish cities have been the scene of weekly protests, the vast majority of them peaceful, since the onset of the crisis in 2008.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative Popular Party took office in 2011 and issued a series of austerity measures and cutbacks in health and education, and labor and financial reforms in a bid to refloat the economy and stave off a bailout. The measure triggered an increase in street protests, including several attempts to encircle parliament, some of which ended up in clashes with police, and where garbage containers were set on fire.

"When more than 20 percent of people are unemployed, I don't think this legislation is what we require," said Alejandro Tourino, partner and information specialist in law firm Ecija.

The draft legislation for the most part doesn't define new infractions or offences, but rather lays down guidelines for fines that judges will be able to impose. Up to now, it was up to a judge to decide the level of a fine.

It does, however include four new offenses, which are classified as very serious and could carry fines of up to 600,000 euros. They are: Demonstrations that interfere in electoral processes, unauthorized or prohibited protests at strategic installations such as airports or nuclear plants, aiming blinding lights _ like laser beams _ at public transportation, and any person who commits three lesser offenses within two years will be in line for a maximum fine.

The bill must be approved by parliament, where it may undergo changes. Its passage, however, is virtually guaranteed as the ruling party has an absolute majority in both chambers.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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