Alert: Afghanistan one year on: open season on the defence of human rights

Colombia: Brutal crackdown on social protest

Geneva, 4 May 2021

The World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) is greatly concerned at the reports it has received on grave human rights violations throughout Colombia, in the context of the protests that began on 28 April 2021 against a tax reform bill which would have increased taxes on income and basic goods affecting a large sector of the Colombian population, already deeply hit by the economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to the latest figures from the Defend Freedom Campaign[1], there have been at least 18 extrajudicial executions, 305 injured, 23 with eye injuries, 11 persons have reported gender-based violence and 988 people have been detained by the National Police, the Mobile Anti-Riot Squad (ESMAD) and the Army. However, these figures are steadily growing and could be much higher, given also the difficulties and aggressions that civil society organisations and communicators are facing in observing protest actions, as well as the lack of official figures that would record, in a systematic and disaggregated manner, deaths and human rights violations committed by the security forces.

A very significant number of these deaths were reportedly registered in the protests that have taken place in the city of Cali, particularly in the poorer neighbourdoods. As of 3 May 2021, human rights organisations had received 14 reports of people who died in the context of the protests, seven of which have already been confirmed, including two minors who died on 28 April as a result of bullets fired by the National Police. In Cali alone, human rights organisations have counted more than 600 arbitrary detentions and eight people with eye injuries.

Deaths caused by the impact of firearms fired by the security forces have also been reported in Bogotá, Ibagué, Madrid, Medellín, among other cities.

During the protests, the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of lethal and less lethal weapons has been reported throughout the country. A multitude of photographic and audio-visual material shows the brutal actions of security forces, including agents of the National Police, ESMAD and the Army, who, in flagrant contravention of international standards and internal protocols, use lethal weapons against defenceless protesters and bystanders. In the city of Cali, on the night of 3 to 4 May, the police and army used heavy weaponry against demonstrators. The resulting number of deaths and injuries is as yet undetermined.

There have also been reports of widespread use of tear gas and stun bullets fired directly at protesters, causing serious injuries and fractures to the upper body and face, as well as the use of armoured vehicles to run over protesters.

Throughout the protests, there have been at least 42 attacks on human rights defenders and numerous attacks on journalists. According to the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP), as of 1 May, there had been at least 33 attacks on journalists, including two arbitrary detentions, 13 physical attacks, as well as insults and stigmatisation by the authorities. Also, on 3 May, the team from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations in Colombia received threats and was subjected to attacks from the police in Cali while accompanying a verification mission composed of six human rights organisations and entities[2]. Members of the verification mission were threatened and attacked with firearms and stun guns by the police and ESMAD. A second group of this verification mission had to take refuge in a private house on the night of 3 May after being shot at by the National Police.

On 2 May, President Iván Duque announced the application of military assistance[3] in response to the demonstrations, with the army deployed in various parts of the country. This decision contravenes international standards, as well as domestic laws and procedures regulating the use of force in the context of protests, including what was ordered by the Supreme Court in September 2020 in its ruling that protects the right to protest and urges to stop the violent and arbitrary actions of the security forces. Apart from the illegal and illegitimate use of force, police and ESMAD agents have reportedly assaulted protesters, followed them, carried out searches without warrants, acted without or concealing their identification, as well as stolen personal items from detainees. Human rights organisations have also warned about the participation of individuals and armed groups of a para-military nature who are allegedly attacking demonstrators and passers-by.

In addition, many people are being arbitrarily detained, using methods such as "transfer for protection" or "transfer by police procedure" (the use of which in this context has been declared illegal on previous occasions[4]) and taken to police stations and Immediate Reaction Units (URI). There are also a significant number of people charged with "terrorism" and "possession or manufacture of dangerous substances", among others. Many of those detained have reported being physically and mentally assaulted during apprehension and transfer to police stations and URIs, including several cases of sexual violence. Detainees are held incommunicado for more than 12-15 hours, denied communication with their lawyers and family members. At least 80 of the detainees were reportedly missing as of 3 May; however, the exact number could be higher.

This pattern of widespread, unwarranted violence against demonstrators and bystanders in the framework of the National Strike reveals grave human rights violations, in particular of the right to life, of the absolute prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment, of the right to peaceful assembly, and of the right to liberty and security. The OMCT highlighted in a recent report, published with the Colombian Coalition Against Torture (CCCT), on the excessive use of force in Colombia and in another report published in March 2021 on the use of force outside of detention, that violent conduct such as that being documented in the framework of the protests in Colombia denotes a deliberate intention to inflict suffering on defenceless persons, which may constitute an aggravated form of ill-treatment amounting to torture.

The OMCT underlines that the acts of police violence that have been taking place in Colombia since 28 April 2021 are part of the repressive dynamics applied by the presidency of Iván Duque and his predecessors to the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, and that they reflect a conception of protests based on the war logic of the internal enemy and its consequent stigmatisation of the social and human rights movement.

It is fundamental that the relevant authorities adopt immediate measures to guarantee and facilitate the right to peaceful assembly ahead of the protests called for the coming days, including the protection of the physical and psychological integrity of the demonstrators, and the emergency medical attention that may be required. The OMCT particularly calls on all security forces not to use lethal force in any circumstances, except when there is an imminent danger to life. As indicated by the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, "only the protection of life can meet the requirement of proportionality when lethal force is intentionally used, and only the protection of life can be a legitimate objective for using such force"[5].

It is also urgent to implement the necessary measures to guarantee the safe monitoring of protests by human rights defenders, as well as the right of journalists and communicators to exercise their right to freedom of expression to inform the Colombian population without fear of being subjected to attacks or intimidation. Finally, we call for the creation of an independent commission with international technical support to investigate without delay all acts of violence, indiscriminate use of force, sexual violence and arbitrary deprivation of liberty in order to identify those responsible and apply the sanctions provided by the law.

[1] The Defend Freedom Campaign is a network of 27 organisations working to denounce arbitrary detentions, judicial harassment and the criminalisation of social protest in Colombia.

[2] The Verification Mission is composed of the Red de Derechos Humanos Francisco Isaías Fuentes, the Comité de Solidaridad con los Presos Políticos, the Campaña Defender la Libertad Asunto de Todas, the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores, the Observatorio de Realidades Sociales de la Arquidiócesis de Cali and the Defensoría del Pueblo.

[3] Ley 1801 de 2016.

[4] See OMCT Report with the Colombian Coalition Against Torture (CCCT), "Protestas sociales y uso excesivo de la fuerza en Colombia: un análisis desde la lente de la prohibición de la tortura" for further information on the figure of transfer for protection.

[5] UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, 1 April 2014, A/HRC/26/36, para. 72. See also, UN Human Rights Committee, General Comment 36, 2019, CCPR/C/GC/36.

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