Cyprus riot police used water cannon and tear gas in rare clashes with protesters as hundreds demonstrated on Saturday against government corruption and coronavirus restrictions.
Protesters had gathered at a park in central Nicosia where they were surrounded by dozens of police in riot gear.
Several groups including left-wing and anti-fascist activists and trade unions had used social media to call for the protest, citing “state authoritarianism” and corruption — notably over a controversial “golden passport” scheme that was scrapped last year.
Organisers and protesters also voiced anger over the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has battered the Cypriot economy and triggered stringent lockdown restrictions.
Olivia Patsalou, a 37-year-old who is looking for work, said she was mainly protesting over the passport affair and “extreme” coronavirus restrictions that were making it harder for her to find a job.
She said she had hoped for “a peaceful demonstration to show our dissatisfaction with the government, with how it’s handled every scandal and how it’s handled the coronavirus situation”.
Some protesters beat drums or shouted in the face of the police, who moved in from several streets to block the demonstrators.
Those present at the start of the protest included people with young children and at least two people in wheelchairs, as well as young men and women in black hoodies and balaclavas.
“I wasn’t expecting (the police) to be so eager to exert force and violence,” said Patsalou.
One woman was seen lying on the ground suffering from the effects of tear gas, and a man in a wheelchair had to seek refuge in a block of flats.
Another protester was later treated by paramedics after being knocked to the ground by water cannon.
Police told AFP that eight people were arrested in the protest, which was held in defiance of coronavirus restrictions.
The Kathimerini local news website said people were fined for breaking Covid-19 restrictions.
Most protesters were wearing masks, an AFP journalist said.
‘They want us to shut up’
Cyprus in January unveiled a series of measures to tackle corruption, several months after Al Jazeera aired a documentary exposing alleged abuses in the controversial “golden passports” scheme for foreign investors, sparking widespread public anger.
The Mediterranean island scrapped the scheme last year and two senior politicians resigned, although they denied any wrongdoing.
The scandal came on top of the economic pain caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected over 35,000 people and killed over 230 across the divided island.
The Republic of Cyprus has begun cautiously easing its national lockdown following a decline in the spread infections that peaked after Christmas.
Andreas, a lawyer and part of the organisers’ legal team who declined to provide his surname, told AFP that people from across the political spectrum were taking part in the demonstration.
“The government has lost legitimacy after the passport scandal and they are using the pandemic as a reason to stop protests,” he said.
“We think that the right to protest is the basis of our democracy, and the epidemiological situation allows people to protest” safely, the 26-year-old added.
But, he said, “they want us to shut up”.