Germany: Police halt Berlin protests against coronavirus curbs
Some 20,000 protesters have rallied, with many ignoring social distancing rules and labeling the pandemic a "false alarm." A surge in cases has prompted calls for tougher measures against COVID-19 rule breakers.
Despite infections soaring once again in Germany and fears of a potential second wave, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Berlin on Saturday to demonstrate against coronavirus restrictions.
With few masks in sight, many in the crowd whistled and cheered as they marched from Brandenburg Gate to the German capital's Tiergarten park.
Demonstrators held up home-made placards with slogans emblazoned with the phrases: "Corona, false alarm," "We are being forced to wear a muzzle," "Natural defense instead of vaccination" and "End the corona panic – bring fundamental rights back."
Within a few hours, however, plans to continue the rally along a wide boulevard that runs through the park were shelved after a police complaint.
Berlin police said they had launched legal action against the organizer over "non-respect of hygiene rules."
The rally had only registered for 1,000 participants but, at one point, police estimated that 20,000 people were in attendance.
In the late afternoon, police used loudspeakers to order demonstrators to leave the area peacefully.
Reporting from the scene earlier in the day, DW's political correspondent Leonie von Hammerstein described how coronavirus-skeptics had gathered for their 'Day of freedom, the end of the pandemic.'
She also noted that a counterprotest was taking place, with many citizens angry at those wanting to break the rules.
"The difference is the counterprotesters are wearing face masks, are keeping the [correct] social distance. Whereas the other protesters are not, they have been shouting 'the pandemic never happened.' And there was an interesting standoff between protesters and counterprotesters," she said in a live report.
DPA reported that some of the counterprotesters, who dubbed themselves: "Grandmas against the extreme right," shouted "Nazis out!" at those taking part in the main protest.
Protesters far and wide
DW's von Hammerstein continued: "I talked to many of the protesters here and there is a wide variety of people who have come here from all over Germany. I spoke with a bus driver who drove protesters here from the south of Germany, protesting the coronavirus restrictions that have impacted the tourism industry."
She then described seeing verbal abuse from protesters, including one man who shouted in her face.
"He believed in conspiracy theories. He believed Bill Gates was behind the coronavirus and wants to forcefully vaccinate everybody and the German government is helping him to do that," von Hammerstein said.
Getting tough on rule-breakers
The protests took place on the same day that German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said he wanted tougher action on COVID-19 rule breakers.
"Anyone who deliberately endangers others must expect that this will have serious consequences for him," Altmaier said.
The number of infections in Germany has been on the rise recently, with 955 new cases recorded on Saturday and 870 on Friday.
The surge has been attributed to the public becoming negligent on hygiene and social distancing rules, according to the Robert Koch Institute, the German government's disease control and prevention agency.