German police on Wednesday used water cannon and pepper spray to disperse thousands of unmasked protesters demonstrating in central Berlin against government measures to curb the spread of COVID-19.
A total of 365 arrests were made and 10 police officers injured as about 5,000 people gathered at the Brandenburg Gate after the German government banned rallies outside parliament because of fears of violence.
After repeated warnings for the crowd to put on face coverings went unheeded, police spent several hours trying to clear the demonstration.
Protesters threw bottles, stones and fireworks at police and attacked them with pepper spray, police said, prompting officers to “use physical force and pepper spray, and arrest some of the attackers.”
The demonstration mirrored similar protests seen across Europe against restrictions opponents see as a violation of their civil rights, despite government warnings about the need to stop the spread of infections.
Organizers in Berlin accused the government of trying to establish a “dictatorship” with shutdown measures that were tightened this month.
Demonstrators carried posters showing German political leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in prison garb and emblazoned with the word “guilty.”
Achim Ecker, a demonstrator in his 50s who traveled to Berlin from neighboring Brandenburg state, said the government was exaggerating the dangers posed by the pandemic.
“We don’t need emergency measures,” he said. “I believe in our own immune systems.”
As protests erupted outside, inside parliament lawmakers passed amendments granting state governments formal powers to limit social contact to help halt the spread of the virus, putting the shutdown measures on a firmer legal footing.
In online chatrooms, activists have compared the measures to the Enabling Act of 1933 which gave Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s government dictatorial powers.
The comments drew outrage, with Germany Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas writing on Twitter: “Those who make such disgraceful comparisons mock the victims of National Socialism and show they have learned nothing from history.”
Merkel’s spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer told a government news conference that the measures simply provide a “temporary legal basis for government action ... which the parliament itself can change at any time.”
The German Ministry of the Interior, Building and Community on Tuesday said that it had been informed by security services that protesters intended to block access to the Reichstag and Bundesrat buildings, justifying the ban.
The Bundestag security force had warned lawmakers that “demonstrators from politically radical and even violent groups” were expected to take part in Wednesday’s protests with “attacks” possible.
The Robert Koch Institute for disease control yesterday reported the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Germany increased by 22,609 from Wednesday’s total to 855,916. The reported death toll rose by 251 to 13,370, the tally showed.
Additional reporting by Reuters
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