Police in Cyprus have fired tear gas and used water cannon in rare skirmishes with protesters rallying against corruption and restrictions imposed over the coronavirus pandemic.
Hundreds of protesters on Saturday gathered at a park in central Nicosia where they were surrounded by dozens of police officers in riot gear.
Several groups including left-wing and anti-fascist activists and trade unions had used social media to call for the protest in the capital, citing “state authoritarianism” and corruption – notably over a controversial “golden passport” scheme that was scrapped last year after an investigation by Al Jazeera implicated high-ranking officials in passport sales.
Organisers and protesters also voiced anger over the government’s response to the 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” curbs 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.
Most protesters were seen wearing masks, while those present at the start of the demonstration 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,” Patsalou told the AFP news agency.
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 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.
Cyprus in January unveiled a series of measures to tackle corruption, months after Al Jazeera aired The Cyprus Papers Undercover, a documentary exposing alleged abuses in the controversial “golden passports” scheme for foreign investors, sparking widespread public anger.
At another anti-corruption protest held in October following Al Jazeera’s investigation, organiser Alexandra Attalides had said participants wanted “resignations, a criminal investigation and to show to all abroad that not all Cypriots are corrupt”.
“We want those who took advantage of their public position to make money out of this programme, we want them to answer to the Cypriot people that they dragged into this situation,” Attalides had told Al Jazeera.
The country abolished 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 pandemic, which has infected more than 35,000 people and killed some 230 across the divided Mediterranean island.
The Republic of Cyprus has begun cautiously easing its national lockdown following a decline in the spread of 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”.