By Richard Balmforth
KIEV (Reuters) - Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich on Friday signed into force a set of tough new laws that would ban virtually all forms of anti-government protests despite an outcry from Western governments which have criticised them as anti-democratic.
The presidential website listed the laws, which were rushed through parliament by Yanukovich's supporters on Thursday, and said: "The President signed the set of laws."
Yanukovich triggered major pro-Europe rallies in the former Soviet republic when he walked away from signing a landmark free trade deal with the European Union in late November in favour of closer economic ties with Russia, Ukraine's Soviet-era overlord.
These rallies rapidly spiralled into mass anti-government protests that brought hundreds of thousands on to the streets of the capital Kiev.
Several hundred protesters are still camped out in the main Independence Square and on the city's main thoroughfare. Several hundred others are camped out 300 metres away in City Hall.
Heavy-handed action by riot police to break up the protests in December failed and brought condemnation from the United States and Europe.
The new laws ban any unauthorised installation of tents, stages or amplifiers - all features of the protests that play out day and night on Kiev's Independence Square. People and organisations who provide facilities or equipment for such meetings will also be liable to a fine or detention.
The laws foresee prison terms of up to 15 years for "mass violation" of public order.
Apart from targeting public protests, the laws have also adopted a similar stance to Russia on registration of foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs), saying they should be categorised as "foreign agents" if they are funded from abroad.
Yanukovich's decision to speedily sign the laws seemed certain to add tension to a new rally in Kiev which the opposition have called for on Sunday.
Though the protests do not appear to have threatened Yanukovich's grip on power, an indication of tensions within his close entourage came with an announcement that he had sacked his powerful chief-of-staff, Serhiy Lyovochkin.
The president's office gave no reason for the move.
Lyovochkin was rumoured to have wanted to step down shortly after riot police dispersed student protesters with stun grenades and batons on November 30 - a move that brought tens of thousands out on to the streets the next day. But these reports were subsequently officially denied.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara on Friday rebuked the West over its criticism and said it was "considered in Kiev as meddling in the internal affairs of our state", according to a ministry statement.
Kozhara, it said, made his comments during a meeting with the EU's ambassador to Kiev, Jan Tombinski, and U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt.
"I am deeply concerned by the events in Kyiv (Kiev)," Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, said in a statement, adding that the legislation was "restricting the Ukrainian citizens' fundamental rights".
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the course taken by Yanukovich was "a dead end ... Repression is no answer to a contentious, political debate".
U.S. Senators John McCain and Chris Murphy also criticised the anti-protest laws, saying they threatened the "credibility" of Ukrainian democracy.
(Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Gareth Jones)