Tens of thousands of Haitians marched in a chaotic day of demonstrations yesterday in protest over hundreds of arrests, clashes and proposed changes to a police law.

The protests – part of a wider and unprecedented coalition of opposition groups – have been conducted under a new law calling for the decriminalisation of minor offences and “civil dignity”, which is seen as an attempt to stifle political opposition.

But the new law comes amid an already deteriorating situation for residents of the country, who have been shut off from the outside world since a powerful earthquake hit in 2010, leaving millions homeless and resulting in a state of emergency.

Haitian President Jovenel Moise, who has represented the country since 2010, expressed outrage at the erosion of civil liberties in the country.

“We must end all unjust practices in Haiti,” he said.

The protests in Haiti – one of the poorest nations in the Americas – began with the launch of a broad coalition that is calling for the arrest of 35 government officials and members of the local judiciary, a move that was also initiated in a wider coalition on Wednesday.

The country has been plunged into a humanitarian crisis after days of widespread looting and political violence in recent months.

“People are carrying placards saying ‘we don’t want any looters, but we want the presidential arrest warrants issued by judges or the Supreme Court’,” said Magaly Jean-Daniel, a first-year law student at the University of the South, whose family fled Haiti in 2014 as the earthquake killed thousands of people.

Demonstrators demanded all party leaders be held to account in a new police code that critics said “would cede leadership” to judges and court officials.

But on social media, people attacked the lack of transparency of the new law. Many also showed their support for members of the activist coalition, adding their own banners to the protest.

One poster on Twitter put up by supporters said the law was “massaging the canon of justice”.

The changes proposed to the police code also increased the power of the police chief, who can order the detention of anyone at any time.

Earlier yesterday, protestors burned cars, smashed shop windows and blockaded roads around the country. Residents also blocked highways and bridges.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, there is no possibility of life without job or an adequate education,” said Corrêche Leeuw at the Martissant Hospital.

The damage caused by yesterday’s protests is far greater than previous disruptions and experts say that the long-term impact is far greater than spontaneous demonstrations.

Fatal protests

The marches have been organised by various groups. Civilians, who at first tolerated the protest movement amid the initial demonstrations, condemned it as “unacceptable” and “divisive”.

Human rights groups and aid agencies, however, have reacted cautiously to the demonstrations.

An unprecedented number of police officers have been involved in previous protests.

Human Rights Watch said the situation in Haiti had reached “institutional grave” after President Jovenel Moise’s National Police and Justice Ministry authorised police leaders to go from one protest to another.

“It is unconscionable that police leaders should be setting the stage for a mass protest,” said Glen Martin, spokesman for HRW’s Global Protection against Torture Centre.