Human Rights Watch (HRW) has condemned the “harsh” police actions during the enforcement of a strict lockdown in Australia’s Victoria state, the epicentre of the country’s COVID-19 outbreak.
In a statement on Thursday, the New York-based rights group said police in the state have engaged in “abusive practices” during the pandemic that raise serious concerns about their commitment to upholding human rights.
“Rights should be upheld and reinforced during a pandemic, not abandoned,” said Elaine Pearson, HRW’s Australia director.
On August 2, authorities imposed a six-week lockdown in metropolitan Melbourne, the largest city in the southeastern state. The restrictions include a 9pm – 5am curfew, a 5km (3.1 miles) travel limit and widespread business closures.
HRW said several recent incidents indicated that Victoria’s police were taking excessive or disproportionate action against suspected lockdown violators.
In one example, HRW said a pregnant woman was arrested on September 2 for planning an anti-lockdown protest on Facebook. Officers handcuffed her and took her to the police station in front of her children, despite her offer to delete the post.
An Indigenous man riding his bike to work on September 3 alleged that officers tackled, assaulted and racially abused him, according to HRW. Police say the man failed to stop when asked for a permit check.
A Melbourne law professor with cerebral palsy was told to “move on” and keep walking after she and her 70-year-old mother stopped to rest and get a coffee.
Between August 4 and September 2, Victoria’s police issued $2.9 million Australian dollars ($2m) in curfew fines. Ten percent of those fines were served to residents living in three of the state’s most disadvantaged communities, The Age newspaper reported.
HRW also expressed concern over a new COVID-19 bill the group said could extend police powers that are currently only given to health experts – such as preemptively detaining people who test positive or are suspected of breaking COVID-19 restrictions.
A set of retired judges and lawyers wrote a letter to Premier Daniel Andrews that the law was “unprecedented, excessive and open to abuse”.
Victoria’s outbreak has had a major effect on the national economy due to lockdown measures including the shutdown of non-essential businesses and the curfew.
As of September 23, Australia has 26,973 cases and 859 deaths, with 20,100 infections in Victoria state alone.