Protests, fights break out in Georgian parliament over 'foreign agents' bill

TBILISI (Reuters) - Protesters on Thursday disrupted committee hearings in the Georgian parliament on a controversial "foreign agents" bill backed by the ruling party, which critics have said represents an authoritarian shift in the country.

Footage published by Georgian media also showed physical fights between opposition lawmakers and those from the ruling Georgian Dream party, which announced last month that it would support the bill.

The draft law would require any organisations receiving more than 20% of their funding from overseas to register as "foreign agents", or face substantial fines. Critics have said it is reminiscent of a 2012 Russian law that has since been used to crack down on civil society.

In February, more than 60 media outlets and civil society groups said they would not comply with the law if it was passed. Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili has said she will veto the bill, although parliament can override her veto.

The bill has drawn foreign concern, including from the United States. On Thursday, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the bill would have negative implications for freedom of speech and democracy.

"(It) would stigmatize and silence independent voices and citizens of Georgia who are dedicated to building a better country for their fellow citizens, for their communities," Price told reporters.

(Reporting by Felix Light; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Paul Simao)