Colombia protesters faced ‘intentional’ police violence: Report

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Amnesty International says more than 100 people have suffered eye injuries in security forces crackdown on mass protests this year.

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Bogotá, Colombia – More than 100 people have suffered eye injuries this year in violent crackdown on mass protests by Colombian security forces, particularly the country’s Anti-Riot Squad (ESMAD), Amnesty International and other rights groups.

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Colombia saw a wave of nationwide protests that began in late April over a tax reform, but public anger later escalated to other social issues.

Violent clashes broke out between protesters and security forces during the demonstrations that lasted more than a month. More than 80 people – mostly young student protesters – were killed and several others, including security forces, were seriously injured.

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In a report published on Friday, Amnesty International said 103 protesters suffered eye injuries during the protests, including at least 12 protesters who lost their eyes after being hit by police projectiles during rallies across the country. Or had lost some of his sight.

This year’s wave of protests in Colombia killed more than 80 people, most of them young students [File: Santiago Mesa/Reuters]

Amnesty’s Americas director Erica Guevara-Rosa said the eye injuries “are indicative of police intent to harm protestors”.

Many victims face challenges to receiving specialized health and psycho-social care, as well as increased barriers to access to good work or continuing their education due to their injuries, the rights group found.

“We have documented enough evidence to believe the suppression of protesters in the national strike” [was] intentionally, as a way of punishing those who were taking to the streets and as a way to try to stop more people from taking to the streets,” Guevara-Rosas told Al in an interview before the report was released. Told Jazeera.

government reforms

Earlier this year, Colombian police were internationally condemned after Human Rights Watch said in June that officers had committed “serious” abuses.

Colombian President Ivan Duque has promised to “modernize” the country’s police force, including providing human rights training and increasing surveillance for officers. One of the main demands of the protesters was the dissolution of the ESMAD, the main perpetrator of the alleged abuse, which comes under the Ministry of National Defense.

But Guevara-Rosa said the government measures taken so far have been weak.

Colombian President Ivan Duque has promised to “modernize” the country’s police force, including providing human rights training and increasing surveillance for officers. [File: Nathalia Angarita/Reuters]

“We are concerned that efforts to address the root causes of the problems are still very inadequate,” he said, adding that official accountability and impunity for human rights violations need to be addressed. “It really needs to be done to create a police force that is going to protect civilians.”

A spokesman for President Duque told Al Jazeera she could not comment on Amnesty’s findings before seeing the report, while a spokeswoman for Colombia’s National Police Department also did not respond to Al Jazeera’s direct questions about the report.

In messages sent through WhatsApp, a police spokesperson said that 231 investigations have been initiated against officers in connection with the national strike, while 1,758 police officers were injured during the unrest.

The department said that citizens have the right to protest peacefully, but protesters dressed as police have come to attack security forces and that they “should face full justice”. The spokesman said police officers were also targeted by protesters and criminal groups who infiltrated the protests, such as the left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels.

However, Guevara-Rosa said that even if some protesters engage in acts of violence, “authorities have a responsibility to ensure and protect people’s right to peaceful protest.”

‘A face lift’

Meanwhile, there are growing calls for Bogota to do more to address allegations of police violence.

Alejandro Rodriguez, coordinator of the Observatory on Police Violence in Tembores, a Bogota-based non-profit involved in Friday’s report, said the government had failed to meet citizens’ demands on police reforms.

“The government is doing it internally and there is not enough participation. They are not taking reports of police abuse seriously,” Rodriguez told Al Jazeera.

Sergio Guzmán, political analyst and director of Colombia Risk Analysis, agreed, calling the proposed reforms to policing in the South American nation “just a face lift”.

“There is a lot of doubt about the ability of the government to bring justice to those who have committed crimes. [This is] Compounded further by the fact that the government has in the past denied any allegations of wrongdoing on the part of the police force, so recognizing the problem has been a big part of it,” Guzman told Al Jazeera.

“There’s really no deep effort to address some of the problems from within.”

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