Chile’s Pinera fends off police abuse claims amid fresh clashes

As concern over torture claims grow, president vows action against security forces found guilty of rights abuses.

Chile police
A riot policeman shoots at demonstrators during a protest against the government's economic policies in Santiago [Javier Torres/ AFP]

Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera has said his government had “nothing to hide” over allegations that security forces tortured protesters, as a public prosecutor announced his intent to investigate 14 police officers over abuse claims. 

In a speech on Wednesday, Pinera promised that police and soldiers found guilty of rights violations would be prosecuted with the same force as rioters and looters.

“We will investigate any excess, failure of protocol in the use of force or excessive use of force,” he said from La Moneda presidential palace in Chile’s capital, Santiago.

“We have been totally transparent about the figures because we have nothing to hide,” he added.

Prosecutors say five of the 20 deaths recorded in the protests against deep-seated inequalities in one of Latin America’s richest countries were suspected to have been at the hands of the security forces.

The protests have been less violent in recent days, but show few signs of easing, with demonstrators gathering on Wednesday near a huge shopping mall in one of Santiago’s more upscale neighbourhoods.

Manuel Guerra, prosecutor for Santiago East, announced on Wednesday that he would seek court approval to investigate 14 police officers for allegedly torturing protesters. He said his investigation was related to two separate incidents during a nine-day state of emergency in the capital from October 18.

One related to the actions of 12 police officers in the suburb of Nunoa, where protesters defied a curfew to conduct successive nights of large but mainly peaceful demonstrations, a spokesman for Guerra told Reuters news agency, without providing further details.

The second related to two officers in the lower-middle-class area of La Florida who were accused of beating a young man who was handcuffed, the spokesman said, adding that Guerra would request that the 14 police officers be detained while the cases were investigated.

A police spokeswoman told the Reuters news agency she did not know if the officers had been suspended and declined to comment further.

Prosecutors also are investigating more than 800 allegations of abuse, including torture, rape and beatings by security forces during demonstrations.

More than 1,659 protesters and 800 police officers have been wounded in the almost three weeks of protests, according to authorities and rights groups, making the violence Chile’s worst unrest since the end of Augusto Pinochet’s 1973-1990 dictatorship. More than 7,000 people have been detained.

Chile’s independent National Human Rights Institute says it has brought legal action over 181 cases, including alleged murders, sexual violence and torture by the military police.

Al Jazeera’s Lucia Newman, reporting from Santiago, said that the charges against 14 police officers are seen as a positive sign in Chile, but more is expected to be done about alleged abuses by the police.

“The institute of human rights in Chile says 120 more police officers are being investigated and hopes that authorities will follow through with those probes,” she said.

Protest against Chile's government in Santiago
Demonstrators take cover behind improvised barricades during a protest against Chile’s government in Santiago [Pablo Sanhueza/ Reuters]

A team sent by Michelle Bachelet, the UN human rights chief and former Chilean president, and another from Amnesty International, were also in Chile interviewing alleged victims.

Hundreds of people on Wednesday marched towards the Costanera Center, a mirror-glass 1,000-foot (300-meter) tower at the heart of so-called Sanhattan, Santiago’s business district.

Shops at the centre’s mall closed shortly after midday. Most protesters who arrived were quickly dispersed by police using water cannon.

Masked vandals later looted a nearby coffee shop, a pharmacy, a grocery store and several other small shops, blockading a main boulevard with a bonfire and bringing evening traffic to a standstill. Vandals also attacked the offices of the right-wing Independent Democratic Union (UDI) party several blocks from the Costanera Center.

Evelyn Matthei, mayor of the upscale Providencia neighbourhood, said dozens of shops had been damaged or looted.

“We’re seeing a level of violence and destruction that we’ve never seen before,” she said on Twitter.

Earlier in the day, the drivers of tractor-trailer trucks protesting road tolls caused commuter chaos, blocking major highways that ring Santiago.

Drivers and passengers parked on the highway bailed from their vehicles to play football in the middle of a major regional highway, television images showed.

Pinera, meanwhile, pushed forward with reforms aimed at taming the continuing unrest.

He sent a law to parliament to guarantee a minimum wage of $480 a month, part of an ambitious social spending plan announced last month as the protests grew.

“We are responding with action and not just good intentions to those things that people have demanded with so much force,” he said in a televised speech.

Chile’s finance minister told the congressional budgetary committee on Wednesday that the government would draw $600m from its sovereign wealth fund to finance the social plan.

Al Jazeera’s Lucia Newman, reporting from the Chilean capital of Santiago, said that the charges against police officers are seen as a positive sign in Chile, but more is expected about alleged abuses by the police.

“The institute of human rights in Chile says 120 more police officers are being investigated and hopes that authorities will follow through with those probes,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies