BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Human Rights Watch urged Ecuador's government Monday to hold those responsible for violent abuses during last year's protests accountable in order to deter any future violations, particularly as the coronavirus pandemic stirs unrest.
A report released by the watchdog group said security officials used excessive force against protesters during demonstrations in October 2019, including firing tear gas canisters directly at people from a short range.
The protests were sparked after President Lenín Moreno eliminated a $1.3 billion gasoline subsidy. Similar protests against economic inequality broke out in nearby countries, including Chile and Colombia, in the following weeks.
“Like many countries, Ecuador may soon face an economic crisis as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “And the lesson for the government from last year’s protests is that it’s essential for police to act within the law.”
Ecuador currently has more than 3,700 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 191 deaths, making it one of the hardest hit countries in South America. In the coastal city of Guayaquil, where many of the cases are concentrated, hospitals are overwhelmed and some of the sick dying at home before ever getting treatment.
According to Human Rights Watch, at least 1,500 people were injured and 11 killed during the October protests, with at least four of those deaths apparently the result of excessive violence from security forces. Ecuadorian officials at the time said police and military officers acted in accordance with the law.
Bus drivers, university students and indigenous people held protests for ten days that led to street battles and forced many business to close.
The organization reviewed footage from the protests and talked to a dozen witnesses who discussed how journalists and humanitarian workers were beaten by police. The group also spoke with the nation's human rights ombudsman, who said 15 protesters lost at least one eye, apparently after being shot in the face with tear gas canisters.
Eventually the Ecuadorian government rescinded the austerity measures. Authorities are investigating nine of the 11 deaths occurred during the protests. The inspector general is also investigating 24 cases of alleged police brutality.
Human Rights Watch called on officials to conduct impartial investigations into cases of violence by police and protesters once the nation emerges from its state of emergency.
“Holding all those responsible for abuses in October 2019 accountable is key to deterring both future abuses by security forces and crimes by demonstrators,” Vivanco said.