Thousands rally in Croatia as pandemic rules hurt businesses

ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) – A Croatian man who was detained for opening his gym in defiance of anti-virus rules has become a symbol of resistance for thousands of small business owners who rallied on Wednesday against government lockdown measures.

The crowds chanted Andrija Klaric’s name at the protest in central Zagreb that called for the resignation of Croatia’s economy minister and described the center-right government’s policies as “discriminatory.”

The small business owners say they have been devastated by the government decision some three months ago to completely shut down venues such as bars, restaurants and gyms to curb the spread of the COVID-19.

Holding banners reading “#Let us work” or “It’s enough,” the protesters on Wednesday demanded that they be allowed to work while respecting physical distancing and hygiene measures.

Klaric spoke at the rally, telling the crowd that “what has brought us together is to make (authorities) realize that they cannot take away our freedom.”

He came into focus earlier this week when he opened his gym to customers to protest the government closure measures. Police soon arrived and detained Klaric while sealing down his business.

Klaric’s detention angered others in Croatia who have been struggling in the pandemic, and came to symbolize what many view as unjust anti-virus measures that they say target ordinary people and small companies.

Croatian entrepreneurs are complaining that the government is not treating everyone equally and not doing enough to ease the strain small companies face during the outbreak.

Police have said Klaric could face charges of “spreading infectious diseases,” which carry a prison sentence.

“This was my first time in detention, I was handcuffed. It wasn’t pleasant,” Klaric told Index news portal. “My daughter watched her father being taken into detention. Now, they are talking about two years in prison.”

At the rally, Klaric’s speech was greeted with long applause and cheers by the thousands who filled Zagreb’s main square. Most wore face masks and organizers handed them out to the participants.

“Politicians are just our representatives who are there to serve us, not to rule,” Klaric said. “They may have good intentions, but good intentions sometimes lead to hell, and this time they have led to a dictatorship which we will no longer put up with.”

Politicians, he said, should “come to my gym for a training session and you will learn something useful.”

The government has said the anti-virus measures must remain in place for the time being although the situation has improved. The economy minister Tomislav Coric said demands for his resignation were “political.”

Croatia has registered more than 230,000 confirmed cases and 5,088 deaths.

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