LJUBLJANA, Slovenia (AP) — Police fired tear gas and water cannons in Slovenia's capital at thousands of protesters who oppose tough anti-coronavirus measures in the small European nation.
About 10,000 protesters, chanting “Freedom, Freedom" tried to block a major highway north of Ljubljana when the police intervened, the second such incident in Slovenia within a month.
The protest, which was organized mostly by groups who are against COVID-19 vaccine passes, took place as Slovenia suspended the use of the Johnson & Johnson shot on Wednesday while it investigates the death of a 20-year-old woman who had received one.
The suspension will be in place until experts determine whether there was a link between the woman's death from a stroke this week and the vaccine shot she received two weeks earlier, Health Minister Janez Poklukar said.
However, the vaccine’s “benefits continue to outweigh the risks” at this point, Poklukar said.
The one-dose J&J vaccine became more popular after Slovenian authorities introduced new requirements for COVID-19 passes, including for going to work in all state-run firms. People must show that they are fully vaccinated or that they have taken an expensive PCR test.
The government approved the purchase of an additional 100,000 doses from Hungary in response to the growing demand.
The woman who died was the second recipient of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in Slovenia to have experienced a serious health condition that wasn't COVID-19, the official STA news agency reported. About 120,000 people in Slovenia have received the vaccine.
Earlier at the protest in the capital, participants observed a moment of silence for the young woman, saying she wanted to “buy her freedom" by getting vaccinated.
The protesters carried banners reading “Stop Corona Fascism” and demanded equal rights for both those who are vaccinated and those who are not.
“I am here for the future, the future of my kids, future generations because this craziness needs to be stopped,” protester Katja Zupan said. “If we don’t stand up for ourselves and for mankind, then we are done, we are lost."
Riot police were deployed at Wednesday's protest following clashes at a previous gathering. A helicopter flew above as crowds also marched through the city, blocking traffic along the way.
Like much of Central and Eastern Europe, Slovenia in recent weeks has seen a rise in infections. The country of around 2 million people has fully vaccinated nearly 48% of the population, a smaller share than in many other European Union member nations.
Slovenia has recommended Johnson & Johnson vaccines for all people over age 18, while some countries who have limited its use to older people.
Darko Bandic, The Associated Press