Berlin coronavirus protest inspires polemics over right to assemble

Photo: EPA Berlin, 1 August 2020.

Politicians from both sides of the political spectrum are reassessing Germany's approach to protests during the pandemic, after thousands of people gathered in Berlin at the weekend at an event flouting hygiene measures, dpa reported.

The freedom to assemble is a "particularly important legal right," Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht told the Monday edition of the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. However, she said that rules must be followed in order to limit coronavirus infections and so as not to endanger others. "I have no understanding for demonstrators who arrogantly defy this," Lambrecht, a member of the centre-left Social Democrats, was quoted as saying.

Armin Schuster, an expert for interior affairs in Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), suggested banning mass demonstrations like the rally seen in Berlin altogether.

Police said up to 17,000 people took part in a march against coronavirus restrictions in the capital on Saturday, with a subsequent rally attracting a crowd of some 20,000. Because many participants were not keeping the required distance from one another or wearing masks, police broke up the event in the early evening.

Schuster said it would be appropriate "to permit [such demonstrations] only under far stricter constraints or not at all," in comments to the Rheinische Post newspaper.

His CDU colleague, Thorsten Frei, who is deputy head of the conservative party's group in parliament, stressed that demonstrations should only be restricted in exceptional cases. "But when the demonstrations themselves become a high risk, the state cannot stand by and watch," he told the newspaper Die Welt.

The protesters found support from the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a far-right party and the largest opposition force in parliament."I see no wrong behaviour," AfD co-leader Tino Chrupalla told the ARD broadcaster, noting that people took to the streets peacefully to defend their civil rights.

Germany introduced sweeping restrictions in mid-March, most of which have been gradually lifted or eased since May. Masks have since been made compulsory in shops and on public transport. Testing is also being rolled out for all holidaymakers, and will in some cases be mandatory, in order to keep infection rates low.

However, a spike in new cases has caused concern in recent weeks, after the number of infections reported daily stayed below 500 earlier last month, but rose to over 900 on Saturday, the day of the march and rally. Early Monday, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for disease control confirmed a latest daily rise of 509, bringing Germany's total confirmed caseload so far to 210,402.

The government agency reported a total death toll of 9,148, while some 193,500 people are estimated to have recovered from the virus.

More on this subject: Coronavirus

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