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The largest demonstrations occurred in cities such as Barcelona, Bilbao and Madrid. Photograph: Sergio Perez/Reuters

Thousands of people have been protesting in Spanish cities against a new law that sets hefty fines for offences such as burning the national flag and demonstrating outside parliament buildings or strategic installations.

The public security law, which was approved last week by parliament, has been heavily criticised by opposition parties and human rights groups as an attempt by the conservative government to muzzle protests over its handling of Spain’s financial crisis.

Saturday’s largest demonstrations occurred in cities such as Barcelona, Bilbao and Madrid, while smaller ones took place in Almeria, Granada and Valencia. Some protesters wore tape covering their mouths and carried placards calling the measures a “gagging law”.

The new law allows fines of up to €30, 000 for disseminating photographs of police officers that are deemed to endanger them or their operations.

Individuals participating in demonstrations outside parliament buildings or key installations could be fined up to €600, 000, if they are considered to breach the peace. Those insulting police officers could be fined up €600. Burning a national flag could cost the perpetrator a maximum fine of €30, 000.

The protests which saw demonstrators mingling with large crowds of Christmas shoppers in some cities ended peacefully. Police in Madrid forced media photographers to produce identity papers.

The demonstrators included groups opposed to forced evictions because the law can levy fines of €30, 000 for attempting to prevent home repossessions.

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