(ATTN: RECASTS lead; UPDATES on end of rallies, police comment in 5th para; RESTRUCTURES)
SEOUL, Oct. 3 (Yonhap) — Conservative groups held drive-thru anti-government rallies in southern Seoul on Saturday with no major clashes with law enforcement, as protesters complied with rules set forth by the court for virus control.
Two separate groups staged rallies involving nine vehicles each on National Foundation Day after a local court conditionally approved such demonstrations under stricter anti-infection measures.
The court allowed nine people — each in their cars — to hold a rally for two hours but set forth conditions such as banning the lowering of car windows and the chanting of slogans during the rally.
The demonstrations came as the government has vowed a stern response against mass rallies after anti-government protests on Aug. 15 were partly blamed for a flare-up in new virus cases.
Police said in a statement the rallies ended without a mass gathering of people, thanks to the measures taken to prevent a resurgence of the coronavirus and citizens’ compliance with the measures.
Except for the two drive-thru protests, a court had rejected conservative groups’ request to suspend the Seoul municipality’s bans on their plans for rallies involving some 1,000 participants or a protest parade with about 200 cars on the national holiday.
Protesters held one of the rallies on a route that includes the neighborhoods of former and current justice ministers to oppose the liberal government’s push for prosecution reform.
Police stepped up their guard throughout the day to prevent conservative activists from holding abrupt and illegal rallies in central Seoul.
Police set up inspection points in 90 locations connecting to central Seoul and checked entering vehicles. About 800 police officers were mobilized to respond to protests.
Police buses were placed in lines on the main streets linking Gwanghwamun and City Hall in central Seoul. Subways were not stopping at nearby stations.
They also set up fences in Gwanghwamun Square where outdoor rallies are often held, denying public access to the public plaza.
“Legal rallies need to be respected, as the Constitution stipulates freedom of assembly. But as for illegal demonstrations, police should respond to them with a no-tolerance principle,” Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said during his visit to the national police agency.
Despite the government’s warning, several conservative groups attempted to enter the public plaza, but they were foiled by police. Instead, they held press conferences in the vicinity and condemned the government for denying freedom of assembly.
Police also thwarted some right-wing activists’ attempt to hold a rally in central Seoul and disbanded them.
The government has issued warnings against illegal anti-government rallies planned by some conservative groups on concerns that the mass gatherings could hamper the country’s efforts to contain the spread of the new coronavirus.
Thousands of people, led by conservative groups, held massive rallies on Aug. 15, the country’s Liberation Day, in central Seoul.
The country’s daily infections spiked to triple-digit figures for more than a month from Aug. 14, until they slowed down on the back of tougher virus curbs. Cases tied to the rallies reached more than 600.
Health authorities remain on alert over a potential rebound in COVID-19 cases after the Chuseok fall harvest holiday that ran from Wednesday till Friday.
In a preemptive measure, the Seoul city government banned all rallies of 10 or more people and designated parts of central Seoul as no-assembly zones. The capital also banned rallies in the form of car parades.
Under the Level 2 social distancing rules imposed at a nationwide level, outdoor gatherings of 100 or more people are prohibited and indoor meetings of 50 or more are also banned.