Serious human rights violations have been committed by Chile’s national police, Cabineros, during weeks of civilian protests that have killed at least 23 people, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said in a report calling for urgent reform. On November 26th, HRW released the findings of its investigations that took place in the last month in Santiago and Valparaiso. A team interviewed more than 70 people including victims injured by pellets fired from shotguns or tear gas cartridges fired from riot guns, and victims of alleged sexual assault, beatings, and torture in detention. The team also interviewed police officers, some of whom had been injured by demonstrators, doctors, lawyers, academics, representatives of civil society, and government officials.
HRW said it found “compelling evidence” of excessive police force. Emergency services treated 11,564 people injured during demonstrations between October 18th and November 22nd, of which more than 1,100 had moderate or serious injuries, according to Chile’s Health Ministry. Additionally, the National Human Rights Institute filed 442 criminal complaints on behalf of victims with prosecutors regarding injuries, cruel treatment, torture, rape, killings, and attempted killings allegedly committed by security forces. The institute documented more than 220 eye injuries caused by pellet shotguns. HRW confirmed that police shotguns scatter pellets “indiscriminately over a wide area” with the potential to harm to anyone in their path.
“We believe that the abuses are not isolated cases, they are not coincidences,” said Miguel Vivanco, HRW’s director for the Americas. “[Abuses] should be promptly and thoroughly investigated to ensure victims’ access to justice.”
President Pinera has yet to respond to HRW’s report, but last week said police may have broken protocols “in some cases“. “If those protocols were not met … that will be investigated by the prosecutor’s office and will be sanctioned by the courts of justice,” the president said.
HRW has recommended a series of reforms to improve police conduct and ensure accountability for police abuses. These include suspending all use of pellet shotguns until a proper examination of their risks is conducted by independent authorities; reviewing police powers of detention; studying the use of alternative less-lethal equipment that minimizes injury; and strengthening police training. The team also recommend police have adequate protection equipment, time off, and overtime pay.
HRW’s findings come as national demonstrations continue into their sixth week. While most demonstrators have been peaceful, some groups have engaged in violent acts, including attacking police officers and police stations with rocks and Molotov cocktails, looting, and burning public and private property. According to police officials, at least 1,896 officers have been injured in the context of the demonstrations. Protests were initially sparked by an increase in the price of public transportation, but have broadened to reflect r anger over economic inequality and serious deficiencies in the provision of social services. Chile is one of the wealthier countries in Latin America but its inequality is amongst the world’s most extreme. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, 1% of the country’s population owns 26.5% of its wealth.
HRW’s findings are a major concern and their recommendations should be implemented immediately. A thorough reform of the Chilean police is needed to prevent further police misconduct and ensure the safety of demonstrators and the wider Chilean public. The high number of reported injuries and complaints are unacceptable, especially in a democratic country. During the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet between 1973 and 1989, meaningful protest and direct action were forbidden. Engaging in such acts meant risking summary execution, torture, or disappearance. The violent reprisals from authorities now are reminiscent of that time. Major reform is needed to prevent Chile from repeating its past of authoritarian repression.
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