German police use water cannons on coronavirus protesters in Berlin

Laws on new restrictions in Germany are expected to be passed.
Protests have been growing in Germany in recent weeks (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

Protests have been growing in Germany in recent weeks (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

By David Rising, Associated Press

German police have fired water cannons at demonstrators in Berlin protesting against coronavirus restrictions.

Police said the crowd refused to listen to their requests to wear masks and keep their distance from one another in line with regulations.

As the cannons shot into the crowd outside the Brandenburg Gate on Wednesday, police in riot gear moved through, carrying away some protesters. Some demonstrators threw fireworks and flares in response.

Officers avoided shooting the cannons directly at protesters because there were children in the crowd, and they worked slowly and methodically to disperse people, Berlin police spokesman Thilo Cablitz said.

More than 100 people were arrested, Mr Cablitz added, and many more temporarily detained. Nine police officers were injured.

The protest crowd thinned significantly by late afternoon as many demonstrators marched back to the city’s main train station, chanting and blowing whistles.

The protests came as German legislators debated a bill that would provide legal underpinning for the government to issue social distancing rules, require masks in public and to close shops and other venues to slow the spread of the virus.

Water cannons have been used (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

Water cannons have been used (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

While such measures are supported by most people in Germany, a vocal minority has staged regular rallies around the country arguing that the restrictions are unconstitutional.

The bill easily passed both the lower and upper houses of Germany’s parliament and was fast-tracked to President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who signed it on Wednesday.

Authorities had earlier banned a series of protests directly outside the parliament building due to security concerns and fencing was put up around a wide area, including the Bundestag and nearby parliamentary offices, the federal chancellery and the presidential residence and offices.

Outside the metal cordons, protesters gathered early by the Brandenburg Gate and on streets and bridges. The demonstrators came from all walks of life, ranging from the far-left to the far-right, while also including families, students and others.

Many protesters had signs (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

Many protesters had signs (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

“We want our lives back” read one sign carried by protesters, while another said “put banks under surveillance, not citizens”. One demonstrator held a flag with a picture of outgoing US president Donald Trump and an image invoking the right-wing conspiracy theory “QAnon”, while another had a placard showing top German virologist Christian Drosten in prison garb with the word “guilty”.

German foreign minister Heiko Maas reacted sharply to the accusation from some protesters that the measures were akin to the 1933 “Enabling Act” which allowed the Nazis to enact laws without parliamentary approval.

“Everyone, naturally, has the right to criticise the measures, our democracy thrives through the exchange of different opinions,” he wrote on Twitter. “But whoever relativises or trivialises the Holocaust has learned nothing from our history.”

A demonstration earlier this month in Leipzig ended in chaos when thousands of protesters defied police orders to wear masks and, later, to disperse. Some participants attacked police officers and journalists.

Local authorities were criticised for acting too slowly and not forcefully enough to break up the crowd in Leipzig, allowing the situation to get out of control.

Police have detained some protesters (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

Police have detained some protesters (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

Berlin police said they had given out multiple citations already on Wednesday for violating mask-wearing regulations but that their appeals for people to wear protective gear and to keep their distance from one another were largely being ignored.

Police said the order had now been given to detain people not following the regulations.

“If that does not help, the only course that remains is to disperse the gathering,” police said on Twitter.

Germany, which has been praised for its handling of the first wave of the virus, has recently seen a sharp uptick in numbers of new infections and is now midway through a second partial lockdown meant to try and slow the spread.

Overall the country has seen 833,000 coronavirus cases and more than 13,000 virus-confirmed deaths in the pandemic.

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