Chile police accused of using excessive force on protesters

Protesters describe being beaten, shot at by police in worst unrest to hit Chile since during the Pinochet dictatorship.

Chile protest
A police water cannon sprays anti-government demonstrators in Valparaiso, Chile [Matias Delacroix/AP Photo]

Santiago, Chile – Gabriel del Campo said he was peacefully protesting in the small square of a quiet Santiago neighbourhood last week when things quickly turned violent.

“It was very peaceful. Lots of families,” he told Al Jazeera, adding they were taking part in a “cacerolazo”, a non-violent form of protest where crowds bang pots and pans.

Before long, police forcefully entered into the crowd, throwing tear gas, he said.

“There were children, babies – I was next to an old man with a walking stick” he added.

To protect those around him, Del Campo said he kicked a smoking tear gas canister away, towards the police. That apparently provoked the officers, who he said rushed him, kicking and beating him with their batons.

A video filmed by a fellow protester shows officers surround Del Campo, hitting him before dragging him on the ground to their van.

Del Campo said once he was in the van, an officer hit him in the crotch before the driver started to verbally abuse him. “They said to me ‘your mother is a whore, they raped her every day’,” he said. 

“These are the people who are in charge of our security,” he said, a few days after he was released.

Chile protest
Riot police detain a demonstrator during a protest against Chile’s state economic model [Ivan Alvarado/Reuters] 

Tomas Ugas described a similar incident that took place in a different neighbourhood of Santiago. Ugas said he and about 30 of his neighbours, including families, were peacefully taking part in a cacerolazo, shortly before the 7pm curfew earlier this month when, without warning, nearby police began throwing tear gas canisters and firing “balines” – small metal pellets – at them.

“One of the shots hit my forehead. I almost fainted because of the impact,” Ugas recalled.

“I felt like I was his prey,” he told Al Jazeera, referring to the officer who shot him. Once home, he had to squeeze the remains of the pellet out of the open wound.

At least 19 people have died during more than a week of protests in Chile over inequality. At least five were killed by military forces or police, according to the country’s national human rights organisation (INDH), prompting allegations of abuse and excessive force.

More than 1,100 have been injured, including hundreds who suffered pellet wounds, INDH said. Thousands of others have been detained.

“They use excessive force, they shoot directly at people. It’s not just to disperse crowds,” said Matias Madiaga, a nurse who volunteered with a group attending civilian casualties on the street. He entered areas where protesters clashed with the police, guiding the injured to a safe space where doctors were on hand.

Chilean police and military officials are not responding to interview requests.

Mario Rozas, the general director of the Chilean Police, said on Thursday that “the greatest transparency” will be given to the human rights cases, and he will work to “identify all that are involved” in the alleged abuse.

UN investigators arrive

On Monday, UN investigators arrived in the country to investigate the abuse allegations.

Michele Bachelet, the UN human rights chief and a former president of Chile, who sent the investigators, has called the allegations “disturbing”.

“The authorities must act in strict accordance with international human rights standards, and any application of the state of emergency must be exceptional and rooted in law,” Bachelet said last week.

The unrest was expected to calm following the lifting of the country’s state of emergency on Sunday night, but protests continued on Monday and Tuesday.

Chile police
Demonstrators move away as riot police use water cannon during a protest against Chile’s government in Santiago [Ivan Alvarado/Reuters]

So far, President Sebastian Pinera’s concessions, including a partial reshuffle of his cabinet and social reforms, have failed to satisfy protesters who have demanded his resignation and a new constitution. It is the worst unrest the country has seen since the 17-year military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

Pinera on Monday said he welcomed the UN team’s visit, adding that “we have nothing to hide”.

The INDH has so far filed 120 judicial actions over alleged human rights abuses.

Ugas is currently processing his case with the INDH. Del Campo, eager to move on from his ordeal, is unsure whether he will file a case.

Although military forces are now off the street, there is still a heavy police presence in Santiago.

Some believe this is necessary to curb the violence of the ongoing protests, which has included looting, vandalism and fires, but others are wary of their presence.

“The military and the police, they are both are crazy,” said Del Campo, bitterly. “They are having fun, they are with armed weapons and they are shooting at people.”

Source: Al Jazeera