STOCKHOLM - The streets of Gothenburg, Sweden's second largest city, saw riots and violent incidents on Saturday as a local neo-Nazi group march deteriorated into clashes with police and counter demonstrators. Police said at least 50 people were detained.
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The march was organized by the "Nordic Resistance Movement" (NMR), a national socialist movement with branches in Sweden, Norway and Finland that promotes a white supremacist, anti-Semitic ideology and doesn't shy from open praise of Adolf Hitler. The movement is legal in Sweden although many of the its members and leaders have been charged and arrested for violent crimes in the past, including for bomb attacks, murder and illegal gun possession.
In recent months there had been reports that the movement was growing in strength, and the group's most recent demonstrations drew hundreds of supporters. This Saturday's demonstration in Gothenburg was supposed to be NMR's most important show of force with over 1,000 participants expected to attend. According to local press however, only about 500-600 turned up.
In Sweden, freedom of expression and the right to demonstrate are highly valued, and will rarely be withheld from neo-Nazi organizations and other extremist groups. Saturday's demonstration received a police permit after its route was changed to avoid the city's main avenue in light of concerns of clashes with counter-protesters. The amended route however had a different problem – it meant the Nazi demonstration would be passing dangerously close to one of Gothenburg's synagogues on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur.
On Monday, as a result of appeals by Sweden's Jewish community organizations and the organizers of Gothenburg's Book Fair which also took place this weekend, the Gothenburg Administrative Court, citing risks to public order and security, decided to shorten the demonstration route and prevented it from passing the book fair or the synagogue. Another court decision, on Friday, ordered the demonstration shortened by an hour because of a football match that was to take place nearby the demonstration's new end point.
A wave of arrests preceded the march as security forces sought to avert the possibility of widespread violence as a result of clashes between the marchers and counter-protesters. Local police were reinforced and extra detention facilities opened in anticipation of the unrest.
A tense atmosphere prevailed as the demonstration began on Saturday. Head-to-toe in black and waving flags, a number donned helmets and created a line of shields at the front of the protest.
It didn't take long for scuffles to unfold, as protestors tried to break the police line. A number of protestors were immediately arrested in the affray, including the movement's leader.
The demonstration never progressed past its starting point and violence broke out after a number of confrontations took place nearby. In some cases, police forces and NMR demonstrators were attacked by counter demonstrators who threw stones and firecrackers. In another, journalists were attacked by NMR demonstrators. Eventually NMR supporters were escorted away and the demonstrations ended. Overall, over 30 people were arrested or detained and two people, a policeman and a civilian were injured.
Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, as well as other leading politicians, praised the police and their handling of the protest. "A clear line was drawn against the Nazis," he said. According to Sweden's online paper The Local, NMR spokesperson, Pär Öberg, said in the group’s online broadcast that he regretted that the demonstration could not be completed. “this will be the last time [NMR] will ask for permission to demonstrate," he said.