One civilian has been hospitalised and several others injured following confrontation with police and private security firms at the National Theatre in Tirana today.
For over 18 months, a group of actors, writers, film producers, and members of civil society have been protesting every day against the government’s plans to sell off public land, demolish the theatre and erect six tower blocks in its place.
The longest running protest in Albanian history, the arrival of the police on site today resulted in the first instance of violence and injury since the protests began.
Following a verbal altercation with a police officer and some pushing from both the police and the protestors, one man was pushed backwards and fell into an empty swimming pool. He fell approximately 1.5 metres onto the tiled surface and sustained injuries to his neck, arm, and head. He was attended to by paramedics who removed him from the scene on a stretcher.
Other injuries were sustained by civilians after both police and private security guards, hired by the government manhandled protestors. Exit.al saw one policeman raise his fist in the face of a protestor only to be restrained by a colleague. Other photos surfaced on social media of a private security guard with his hands grabbing a protestors mouth, clutching at the throat of other civilians, and several police pushing a crying woman to the ground.
The core group of theatre protestors had been maintaining a 24/7 watch on the theatre over fears that its demolition could be imminent. This morning, shortly after 6:30am, large numbers of police and privately contracted security guards arrived on the site, forming a line and barricading the way.
After the news broke via social media, several hundred citizens joined the protestors in a show of solidarity. Luzlim Basha, the leader of the Opposition was also in attendance.
The crowd shouted “down with the dictator”, “Rama go”, and calls for the theatre to be saved, saying it belongs to them and not a “criminal government”. They also criticised the police, telling them that they should be ashamed to use violence against civilians and questioning if they agreed with the demolition of the historical building.
A number of the protestors who have been protesting for 18 months were spotted in tears, distraught at the thought that their battle might be over.
It is not clear why a private security firm had been sent to the site when there were already three different branches of the police officers in attendance. The inclusion of largely unregulated private guards in today’s protest has been widely criticised as they are not bound by the same rules, nor do they undergo the same training as police officers.
Former Albanian ambassador to the UK, Mal Berisha was in the crow “we grew up with the famous actors here that have given us so much culture- their legacy is inside this building and now a group of people (the government) want to make money illegally, using public property.”
“We will lose our legacy” he added.
The selling of the public land that the theatre sits on, to a private company is illegal but the Socialist Party passed a “Special law” to circumnavigate this, in a move that has been widely considered as unconstitutional. This cannot be challenged in the constitutional court however as the court remains defunct.
A number of protestors and journalists have now occupied the theatre and are refusing to leave. The police remain outside and have reportedly been joined by Special Forces.