MADRID Spain's conservative government agreed on Friday to toughen penalties for unauthorized street protests up to a possible 600,000 euro ($816,000) fine, a crackdown that belies the peaceful record of the anti-austerity protests of recent years.
Leftists and civil rights activists have labeled the bill the "Kick in the teeth law" because it penalizes a battery of protest measures in what they say is a disregard for democracy in a country that only emerged from right-wing dictatorship in the late 1970s.
But Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, whose People's Party (PP)has an absolute majority in parliament, has said the Citizens' Security Law guarantees freedom and will have the support of a majority of Spaniards.
Street protests and strikes have became increasingly frequent in recent years following huge cuts to education and health spending aimed at shrinking Spain's public deficit to adhere to European Union demands.
But in contrast to Greece and elsewhere, where many similar protests have turned violent, Spain's have remained largely peaceful, despite unemployment of 26 percent, rising poverty, and changes in labor laws that make firing easier.
The bill, approved by the cabinet on Friday and now heading to parliament, would apply the maximum fine to unauthorized protest that turns violent inside or outside Spain's upper or lower houses.
Among other measures, protesters who cover their faces at demonstrations could be fined up to 30,000 euros while "offensive" slogans against Spain or its regions could reap a similar sanction.
"We want to guarantee a freer and more peaceful coexistence for all Spaniards ... eradicating violence," Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz told reporters.
The new measures also include fines of up to 30,000 euros for drinking alcohol in public spaces and causing a disturbance, a measure certain to irritate the young drinkers who congregate in squares across Spain at weekends.
The government also plans a new law restricting labor protests.
Although most of the recent political protests have been peaceful, some of the anger about the economic crisis and a huge rise in evictions and poverty has targeted members of the People's Party personally.
A judge this year ruled that one protest staged at the house of Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria did not constitute a crime.
Opposition parties say the bill violates the right to protest and limits free expression in a country that suffered nearly four decades of fascist dictatorship under Francisco Franco.
"The government knows that citizens are going to continue to protest on our streets and what they want is to instill fear and paralysis," said Socialist lawmaker Antonio Hernando.
"This law ... attempts to criminalize the act of protest," said United Left lawmaker Gaspar Llamazares, questioning whether it complied with Spain's constitution. "The government is trying to turn its political opponents into delinquents."
Catalan leftist politician Joan Coscubiela called the bill "a kick in the teeth for democracy".
Even some conservative commentators criticized it.
"Compare events in Spain with those of other countries around us," wrote conservative columnist Jose Antonio Zarzalejos on the website El Confidencial. "This security law ... will add the stigma of authoritarianism to the political failure of the PP."
($1 = 0.7353 euros)
(Editing by Kevin Liffey)