Colombian police used excessive force during protests: HRW report

BOGOTA (Reuters) – Some members of Colombia’s police used excessive force against protesters participating in marches late last year, including beatings and detentions, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report on Tuesday, as unions and student groups prepared for further demonstrations this month.

FILE PHOTO: People attend a protest march combined with concerts in Medellin, Colombia, Dec 22, 2019. REUTERS/David Estrada

Marchers held mass protests in November and December to demand a laundry list of actions from President Ivan Duque’s right-wing government, on everything from the murders of human rights activists to youth unemployment.

Duque’s administration has been meeting with representatives of the protesters since, but dissatisfied major unions and students groups will hold a new national strike on March 25.

Though marches were largely peaceful, in several instances, police beat protesters and used crowd-control weapons inappropriately, advocacy group HRW said.

“We have gathered worrying accounts and evidence of abuses by Colombia’s police, including arbitrary detention and brutal beatings against peaceful protesters, detainees, and bystanders,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

“President Duque should send a clear message that these violations will not be tolerated.”

HRW said it interviewed 26 victims of police abuse and met with officials to discuss the cases.

The head of the National Police, General Oscar Atehortua, confirmed he met with Vivanco. Many accusations of police abuse were made by people who had attacked officers and were arrested, he added.

“We remain open to whichever authorities so they can obtain information from the police to clear up each of these occurrences,” Atehortua told journalists.

HRW specially cited the death of teenager Dilan Cruz, fatally injured by a projectile fired by riot police. Cruz’s death became a rallying cry for many marchers, who have demanded the force be dissolved.

The country’s procurator asked the squad to stop using the weapon that killed Cruz, but HRW said it continues to be used.

Colombia uses weapons reviewed by the United Nations to control disturbances during protests, the defense ministry has said.

The police opened 47 disciplinary investigations in connection with the protests, Atehortua said. The majority were still under investigation, but in six closed cases, police were not found responsible for abuse.

The Colombia government expelled 61 foreign nationals, all but one who were Venezuelan, in connection with the protests, the report said. Some expulsions appeared arbitrary, it added.

Rumors blaming migrants for violence and looting sparked an increase in xenophobia following the protests.

More than 300 police were injured during protests and Bogota and Cali put in place a curfew to curtail isolated looting and destruction of public transit.

Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb and Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by Bernadette Baum

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