Police in 60 countries ‘used pandemic as an excuse’ to commit abuses

Abusive policing and excessive reliance on law enforcement to implement COVID-19 response measures have violated human rights and, in some instances, made the health crisis worse, Amnesty International (AI) have said.

In a new briefing, COVID-19 Crackdowns: Police Abuse and the Global Pandemic, AI documented cases in 60 countries where law enforcement agencies committed human rights abuses in the name of tackling the virus. This includes cases where people were killed or severely injured for allegedly breaching restrictions, or for protesting against detention conditions.

Via a media statement AI said that while some limitations on human rights can be justified during a pandemic to protect public health or other pressing social need, many governments have gone far beyond reasonable and justified restrictions.

Patrick Wilcken, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Global Issues Program, said that security forces all over the world are widely violating international law during the pandemic, using excessive and unnecessary force to implement lockdowns and curfews.

“While the role of law enforcement at this moment is vital to protect people’s health and lives, the over reliance on coercive measures to enforce public health restrictions is making things worse,” Wilcken said. “The profound impact of the pandemic on people’s lives compounds the need for policing to be carried out with full respect for human rights.”

Far from containing the virus, decisions to arrest, detain, use force, and forcibly disperse assemblies have risked increasing contagion — both for the law enforcement officials involved as well as those who are affected by police actions, the rights group said.

Amnesty International’s report has provided numerous examples of state overreach and abuse of power that have been falsely justified in the name of protecting public health. 

“State of emergency laws further conferred unfettered powers on governments to take measures to respond to COVID-19,” the report said while offering Cambodia as an example.

“Cambodia’s government used COVID-19 as a pretext to pass a law enabling and regulating states of emergency,” the report said. “The law’s vaguely worded provisions, if invoked, would give the authorities unprecedented powers to implement ‘other measures that are deemed appropriate and necessary in response to the state of emergency’, with no checks and balances.”

Police patrol in front of Phnom Penh municipal court in Phnom Penh on Nov. 26, during a mass trial against more than 100 opposition members and activists charged with conspiracy to commit treason related to self-exiled opposition figurehead Sam Rainsy’s failed plan return to the country in 2019. (Photo by Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)

Thailand was highlighted along with several other nations that measures disproportionately restricted the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.

“Even where no official state of emergency was declared, measures claimed by the authorities to be justified to fight the pandemic were used to repress dissident voices and political opponents,” the report said.

AI further said that many states have also used the pandemic as a pretext to introduce laws and policies that violate international law and roll back human rights guarantees, including unduly restricting the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. 

Amnesty’s report gave an example of what occurred in Pakistan earlier this year when a group of medicos held a protest.  

“In Pakistan, on 7 April, 53 doctors and other health workers protesting the lack of resources, PPE and security from the government in Quetta were baton-charged, arrested and detained in police stations,” the report said. “In June, in the same city at least 24 students who were protesting the lack of Internet access to attend their classes virtually were also detained and kept in prisons for almost 24 hours.”

The report also said journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders and political activists have been similarly summoned by police for questioning or arrested for expressing their views on COVID-19 measures or sharing information in a number of countries that included the Asian nations of China, Bangladesh, and India.

Police personnel wielding lathis disperse a crowd flouting social distance outside a railway terminus in Mumbai on May 14. The crowd were waiting to board a special train back to their homes during a nationwide lockdown. (Photo by Manoej Paateel/shutterstock.com)

Accountability needed

AI said that pandemic-related police operations have led to deaths and injuries in many countries, including in the context of police enforcing curfews and lockdowns. Elsewhere there have been mass arrests, unlawful deportations, forced evictions, and aggressive crackdowns on peaceful protests, as governments use the pandemic as an excuse to attack human rights and crackdown on dissent.

AI said that in several countries, police have demonstrated racial bias and discrimination in their enforcement of COVID-19 regulations.

The rights group said that the COVID-19 pandemic does not relieve law enforcement agencies of their obligation to carefully balance the interests at stake and to use their powers in a manner that complies with their human rights obligations. 

Anja Bienert, head of Amnesty International Netherlands Police and Human Rights Program, said that law enforcement officials must be held accountable for excessive or unlawful exercise of their powers.  “Without accountability, the door will be opened to further abuses of power,” Bienert said.

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