german police
© Reuters / Michele Tantussi
Covid-19 health concerns are not grounds for a general ban on public demonstrations, a German court has ruled, after activists took a case arguing that Berlin's current restrictions on public gatherings are unconstitutional.

If they adhere to social distancing rules, Germans should have the right to hold political protests, the Constitutional Court said in the Thursday ruling.

Activists in Giessen, a town in the federal state of Hesse, had planned a protest march to denounce new rules that ban gatherings of more than two people in public, arguing that they were in breach of the country's constitution and citizens' right to free assembly.

The court agreed, saying that an outright ban on such gatherings would be unconstitutional and asked authorities to review the measures.

The activists had petitioned the Constitutional Court after two lower court rulings affirmed the ban. The ruling was not an outright victory for the activists, however, as the court did not say that the planned demonstration could go ahead - despite the fact that organizers had vowed to adhere to social distancing rules.

The lower courts' rulings were determined to have "violated the constitutional right to assembly."

The ruling could pave the way for street demonstrations during the pandemic and came a day after Chancellor Angela Merkel said the country would begin to slowly lift some restrictions, including the limited reopening of some shops next week and of schools from early May.

Merkel also assured Germans that the country's hospitals are not overwhelmed and that there has been "fragile intermediate success" in fighting the virus. She also urged citizens to wear protective masks when shopping or on public transport.

Both left and right-wing activists in Germany have taken issue with the measures and restrictions introduced to slow the spread of the virus in Germany, with the conservative Alternative for Germany criticizing the move to shut churches even over Easter. Meanwhile, left-wing groups declared they would go ahead with May 1 Labor Day festivities, regardless of guidance from Berlin.

The death toll from Covid-19 in Germany has been significantly smaller than that experienced by some of its European neighbors. While Germany has reported under 3,600 deaths from the infection, France has recorded more than 17,000 - despite the two countries having roughly 134,000 confirmed cases, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.

However, this disparity could be partly explained by different approaches taken by different nations to the crisis, including the decision on who to test. If a country tests only the sickest people, the death rate would seem higher. On the other hand, with a country like Germany which has been mass-testing, it would be lower. Some experts also attribute Germany's relative success to the fact that it has higher numbers of hospital and ICU beds.