Member of civil society and activists have raised concerns over alleged double standards by the government in terms of banning protests in Albania.
A number of protests have taken place in the country since the beginning of the pandemic. Some escalated into violence and scuffles between protestors and police, most ended in protestors being escorted to the police station and arrests being made.
Those arrested or detained were told it was because they had not complied with anti-COVID-19 protocols which ban big gatherings in public and require social distancing, and now mask-wearing to be maintained.
Many of those who were accompanied to the police station said that while in custody, they were placed in cells with other inmates where it was not possible to social distance and that police themselves did not observe protocols.
During a forum organized by the Qendresa Civare, the People’s Advocate Erina Ballance said: “we lack the right to unite and talk collectively through the silence of the voice ‘against’ or otherwise.”
Following the start of the pandemic, the Ministry of Health by the decision of the Technical Commission of Experts approved an order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. It includes a provision where mass gatherings in closed or open spaces, as well as other scenarios, are forbidden.
Since then, a number of protests have been dispersed in and outside of Tirana.
Concerns have been raised that while protests are being stifled, political gatherings and rallies during the run up to the 2021 general election are being allowed.
Deputy Minister of Health and chairwoman of the Technical Committee of Experts, Mira Rakacolli said that during protests people shout and spread more droplets in the air while during political events, this doesn’t happen.
“In protest, distance or calm can not be maintained, so it is impossible to be totally safe at any moment, as protesters shout or approach each other,” she added.
There is no specific guidelines on what constitutes a mass gathering leaving a lot of room for interpretation.
Robert Gajda the Commissioner for Protection from Discrimination said that these actions by the state lead to concerns from citizens that protests are being stopped because criticism is not accepted.
The WHO defines a mass gathering as high-profile international sporting events and international religious events. It also says that lower profile events can be considered as such if they bring together such a number that would have a strain on the health system in the community where it takes place.
In the case of many Albanian protests where just 10-50 people are present, it does not appear that this meets the criteria of a mass gathering.
The WHO adds that if the event is held in a big city in a country with a well-resourced health system and lasts just a few hours, it may not be considered as a mass gathering.
There have been political gatherings and events throughout Albania over the last few months.