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Puerto Rico: Police Violence Against Demonstrators

Puerto Rico: AI concerned at reports of police violence against unarmed demonstrators

Amnesty International is concerned at reports of police violence against unarmed demonstrators protesting against a luxury coastal housing development in Puerto Rico last Wednesday. While the organization welcomes the prompt announcement of an external inquiry into the incident, the allegations appear to form part of a pattern of ill-treatment by police, including harassment of journalists witnessing such incidents.

Amnesty International said that the authorities must ensure that police officers are fully trained to respect human rights and internationally recognized standards on use of force. Any officers found to have violated such standards should be held fully accountable.

On 12 December, more than 100 officers of a national police tactical squad (Unidad de Operaciónes Tacticas) clashed with up to 50 environmentalists who were engaged in civil disobedience by blocking lorry access to the development site at Paseo Caribe. The day before, the Justice Department had suspended construction permits for the site, part of which was on public land, but operations were allowed to continue pending negotiations.

According to reports, police pushed and punched demonstrators, throwing them to the ground or dragging them across the tarmac. Several protesters were injured, including film producer Pedro Muñiz who allegedly sustained multiple lacerations after being brutalized by police.

A police spokesperson said that officers were carrying out their duty and that some protesters, instead of remaining passive, had resisted being moved and had kicked out at officers. However, other reports claim that non-violent demonstrators were ill-treated by police as they were dragged along or lay unresisting on the ground.

There were also complaints that police acted aggressively toward journalists at the scene, pushing them away and preventing them from recording incidents.

AI said the alleged police actions appeared to violate international standards set out in the United Nations (UN) Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. These require that officers should apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force; and that force should be used only when strictly necessary, in proportion to the threat posed and in a manner designed to minimize damage or injury.

The UN standards stress that everyone is allowed to participate in lawful and peaceful assemblies, in accordance with the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Basic Principles also state that, "In the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary".

Amnesty International hopes the commitee set up to evaluate the police action at Paseo Caribe will conduct an impartial and thorough investigation, with reference to international standards and guidelines on police use of force. It urges the findings to be made public at the earliest possible date.

The investigation should also review the alleged obstruction of journalists during the incident in question, and allegations that some were subjected to undue force. The organization is concerned that this is not the first report of journalists in Puerto Rico being harassed or prevented from recording events. In February 2006, members of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation reportedly used pepper spray and unjustified force against a group of journalists covering a news event in which police were raiding the house of a political activist. AI's call on the US authorities to investigate the incident met with no response.


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