Colombian police used excessive force during protests: HRW report

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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.

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, in talks hailed as a success by the government. Dissatisfied major unions and students groups will hold a new national strike on March 25.

Though marches last year 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 and the authorities should ensure that those responsible for violations are held to account.”

The national police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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

It 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 riot force be dissolved.

The country’s procurator asked the squad to stop using the weapon that killed Cruz, but HRW said the head of police told them in late January the force continues to use the weapon.

Colombia uses weapons reviewed by the United Nations to control disturbances during protests, the defense ministry said at the time of Cruz’s death.

The Colombia government expelled 61 foreign nationals, all but one Venezuelan, in connection with the protests, the report said.

“Some of these expulsions appear to be arbitrary,” it added.

The government said at the time the Venezuelans had been involved in vandalism.

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

Though the demonstrations were largely peaceful, more than 300 police were injured and the cities of Bogota and Cali put in place the first curfew in a generation to curtail isolated looting and the widespread destruction of public transport stations.

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