Big question marks hang over the two demonstrations that will be held in Nicosia and Limassol today, after what happened last weekend. Will there be as big a police presence, will officers be in full riot gear, will they adopt the same heavy-handed tactics or will we witness a more sensible and restrained type of policing? Will demonstrators march peacefully, keep distances from each other, wear face masks or will they be infiltrated by provocateurs wanting to cause trouble and clash with police?
Last Saturday’s demonstration in Nicosia sparked a public outcry after people saw film clips of the excessive force used by police, including a water cannon, to control what was essentially a peaceful protest against corruption and the government’s handling of the pandemic, primarily by youngsters.
The youngsters were violating the decree against public gatherings and demonstrations, but if the police had orders to punish them, they could have issued fines instead of chasing them down and wrestling with them and then arresting some of them for public affray.
Everyone condemned the police heavy-handedness, including justice minister Emily Yiolitis, who said the necessary proportionality was absent, and the attorney-general has ordered a full investigation in order to appease public opinion. Is a criminal investigation required to establish who had given the orders for the police to act in such an aggressive way? Meanwhile, ordinary policemen are furious that nobody has backed them and feel they are being made being made to take the blame for following orders.
The matter also took big political dimensions, with the opposition parties slamming the government for its methods and some calling for the justice minister’s resignation. Akel, in particular, has sought to exploit the matter fully, accusing the government of undemocratic behaviour and trying to suppress criticism of corruption. It has, however, distanced itself from today’s demonstrations, not wanting to be seen supporting violations of the decrees aimed at protecting public health. Organisers of the protest events have also insisted that they have no links to any political parties, even though many of the obscure groups participating could be described as leftist.
The justice minister, who cannot wash her hands of the behaviour of the force, together with the police command must ensure officers on duty show restraint and avoid any physical contact with the demonstrators unless there is a real threat to public order. If this was the approach last Saturday, there would not have been another gathering organised today with the real possibility of many more people attending. The authorities have to tolerate a little civil disobedience, even at a time of repression for the sake of public health.