Three arrested Sunday amid ongoing protest against Eritrean festival: police

Rosa Saba, The Canadian Press

Published Monday, August 7, 2023 2:59PM EDT

Last Updated Monday, August 7, 2023 3:31PM EDT

Three people were arrested and later released unconditionally at a Sunday protest outside a downtown hotel connected to a controversial Eritrean festival, Toronto Police said.

Demonstrators opposed to Festival Eritrea, which erupted in violence the day before at a city park, first gathered at a local school in the morning before moving to the Sheraton Hotel in the afternoon and evening where the festival was holding an event, Const. Laurie McCann said in an email.

Sunday’s protest turned aggressive at around 10 p.m. when some people threw water bottles at officers, though McCann said there were no reported injuries. She said officers from two city divisions, as well as riot officers, attended the hotel for public safety and to keep the peace.

“Police will continue to investigate any further crimes and identify those involved. Charges can be laid at a later date,” McCann said.

The protest and arrests came a day after clashes at Toronto’s Earlscourt Park, the venue where Festival Eritrea was scheduled to unfold over the August long weekend. Saturday’s violence sent nine people to hospital, triggered deployment of the police force’s riot squad and prompted the city to revoke the permit of the festival that has taken place there for years.

Demonstrators opposed to the event claimed it supports the government of Eritrea, which human rights groups have called one of the most oppressive regimes in the world.

Police have made no arrests related to Saturday’s events, and festival committee members removed their tents from the area on Sunday, McCann said.

An investigation into the reported assaults and stabbing at the park is ongoing and police are asking the public for video footage, said McCann.

A petition started on July 30 addressed to the Sheraton asked it to cancel events scheduled there on Sunday in connection with Festival Eritrea.

Eritrea won independence from Ethiopia three decades ago. Since then, the small Horn of Africa nation has been led by President Isaias Afwerki, who has never held an election. Millions of residents have fled the country in order to avoid conditions such as forced military conscription.

The Eritrean Canadian Community Center of Metropolitan Toronto said Sunday that while it’s not affiliated with the festival, it has heard concerns from community members about organizers’ ties to the Eritrean government.

“These concerns are particularly distressing for some of our community members who have fled oppressive circumstances in their homeland, causing them to experience re-traumatization. We recognize the significance of these issues and are committed to addressing them with utmost sincerity and sensitivity.”

A Twitter account representing the Coalition of Eritrean Canadian Communities and Organizations posted statements in defense of the festival Sunday, saying it has been held peacefully for almost three decades. It alleged that participants were attacked by the demonstrators, who it described as violent and extremist. It also denied government funding of the event Sunday and said no Eritrean ministers were in attendance.

A similar scene played out last week in Sweden during an Eritrean festival in the capital city of Stockholm, where about a thousand protestors disrupted the event, leaving dozens injured.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published August 7, 2023.

— With files from The Associated Press 

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