Coronavirus: 14 charged with rioting, attacking police during Sunday’s protest

Photo: ČTK/Ondřej Deml

Riot police clashed with football and ice hockey ultras in Prague on Sunday after they refused to disperse after a mass protest against Covid-19 restrictions – a protest which itself violated government restrictions to contain the virus. Police responded with tear gas, flash grenades, and water cannon after some of the 2,000 protesters gathered on Old Town Square started hurling fireworks, bottles and pavement stones at them. Fourteen people could face criminal charges.

Sunday’s protest was organised by a group calling itself the Movement of Civil Disobedience, whose leaders had secured a legal permit to gather. They officially ended the protest after its numbers swelled far beyond the allowed limit of 500 people. Even so, almost none wore facemasks or adhered to social-distancing requirements that had allowed for the protest to take place.

While officially organised by the Movement of Civil Disobedience, the protest was initiated last week by supporters of Baník Ostrava football club. There were joined on Old Town Square by hundreds of hardcore fans from clubs across the country, dressed in black rather than in team colours. It was mainly these so-called ultras, police say, who instigated Sunday’s violence.

Jan Hamáček, photo: Michaela Danelová / Czech Radio

Police had anticipated that the protest could turn ugly. Squads at train stations, metro stations and other transportation hubs across Prague had detained nearly 50 people before the protest began, after finding dangerous items on them including fireworks, brass knuckles, telescopic batons, and in one case a firearm. Still, Interior Minister Jan Hamáček said he was shocked by the attacks on police officers.

“The violence on Old Town Square was an organised action by football hooligans against police officers. This is simply barbarism of the highest order. I had expected trouble but not such brutality. The images are shocking and these people will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Our experts on extremism within the Police Department know which groups are supporters of which clubs.”

Police detained 144 people during the protest on Old Town Square, Prague police spokesperson Eva Kropáčová said in a statement. Of them, 14 have been arrested on changes of rioting and attacking police officers. She said that eight police officers were treated for injuries on the scene by emergency medical responders. Four were admitted to hospital on Sunday but are now recovering at home.

Photo: ČTK/Roman Vondrouš

Ultras had said they would protest “nonsensical” government restrictions, such as banning football matches and closing pubs. Some in the crowd carried barriers calling on schools to reopen. Other held signs proclaiming “Freedom or Death”. Among the demonstrators were also far-right extremists who chanted “Bohemia for the Czechs” (Čechy Čechům) and for Health Minister Roman Prymula to be sent “to the gas chambers”.

For his part, Prymula said the protest could prove to be a super-spreader event, leading to hundreds more Covid-19 infections and so the need for restrictions to remain in place longer. He said protestors showed contempt for health care professionals on the front lines risking infection to contain the spread of the virus.