BRATISLAVA (REUTER) - The Slovak parliament dealt a blow to Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar`s coalition on Tuesday by rejecting a new penal code strongly criticised by civil rights watchdogs. The draft amendment to the criminal code, known as "The Law on the Protection of the Republic", was backed by 69 of the 142 deputies present with 67 against, failing to muster the required simple majority of 72. The draft was sent back to parliament unsigned by President Michal Kovac who is locked in political feud with former boxer Meciar. "This law named offences against the republic which even communist legislation did not need," Kovac told deputies. The draft law, sharply criticised by the United States, the European Union and human rights groups, would have made activities such as organising anti-government demonstrations or slandering the republic abroad into punishable offences. "This law... is unconstitutional," Kovac added. Slovakia is keen to be among the first wave of new members of both the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) but Western diplomats have said its chances may be waning as concern grows over the pace of democratic reform. It was the second version of the law, originally drawn up by junior coalition partners, the Slovak National Party (SNS)
and borrowed from legislation drawn up under communism. The proposed law was also criticised in the U.S. government`s annual human rights report. While recognising Slovakia`s general respect for human rights in 1996, the report noted that "disturbing trends away from democratic principles continued". Tuesday`s vote also highlighted strains within the three-party coalition government which has dominated parlaiment since autumn 1994. Most deputies from Meciar`s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia and the SNS supported the draft but 10 deputies, mainly from the far-right junior coalition partners Workers` Party voted against it. The draft now falls.