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Rights group denounces ‘brutal’ repression of protests in Peru

Lima Peru – The Peruvian police and army have violently repressed recent anti-government protestsresulting in deaths that likely amount to “extrajudicial or arbitrary executions” under international law, according to a new 107-page report by the nonprofit Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“We have found conclusive evidence that the police and military in Peru used disproportionate, indiscriminate and brutal force against protesters and bystanders,” César Muñoz, HRW associate director for the Americas, told Al Jazeera. “We can say that for sure.”

The report, released Wednesday, comes nearly five months after widespread manifestations broke out all over Peru, after the impeachment and arrest of the then president Pedro Castillo in December.

After reviewing ballistic and autopsy reports, as well as health records, HRW found that the majority of protester and bystander deaths were the result of gunshot wounds.

Of the 49 civilians killed during clashes with security forces between December and February, the nonprofit organization found that 39 were killed by firearms and five more by “pellets fired from shotguns.”

According to Muñoz, the police, in some cases, used a type of lead shot that contravened Peruvian law.

A line of police officers blocks a street near Plaza San Martín in Lima, preventing protesters from approaching Avenida Abancay, one of the focal points of the protest (Jacob Kessler/Al Jazeera)

“Peru’s national police have approved pellets for use in crowd control operations,” Muñoz said. “But those pellets are supposed to be made of rubber.”

A civilian, Rosalino Florez, 22, was shot more than 30 times with buckshot on January 11. He died last March after nearly two months in the hospital.

another protester, Victor Santisteban Yacsavilcawas killed on January 28 when a police officer used a riot gun to fire what appeared to be a tear gas canister at a group of protesters in the capital Lima.

HRW’s review of CCTV footage shows Santisteban collapsing, blood oozing from a head wound.

“It really saddens me as a person, as a human being, as a sister… to see that we live in a country where there is no justice,” said her sister Elizabeth Santisteban.

“It really makes me very sad that 60 lives are worthless to this corrupt government,” he added, using an estimate of the total death toll from the protests.

A man places a white rose on top of a coffin, surrounded by flowers.
Relatives mourn Víctor Santisteban Yacsavilca on January 30, after his death during protests in Lima, Peru (File: Sebastian Castaneda/Reuters)

Protesters have issued a wide range of demands. Some have called for the release of Castillo, who faces charges of “rebellion” for trying to dissolve Congress and rule by decree before a third impeachment hearing on December 7.

Other lawsuits include new electionsthe dissolution of Congress and the resignation of President Dina BoluarteCastillo’s former vice president and the first woman to assume the highest office in the government of Peru.

A February poll by the Institute of Peruvian Studies showed Congress had a 90 percent disapproval rating, while the president’s disapproval rating was 77 percent.

While Boluarte has apologized and expressed “regret” for the deaths, she has did not get to resign.

“I will not resign. My commitment is to Peru,” she said in January. He also blamed the violence on so-called “radicals” in the protest movement.

A man holds up a paper sign with oozing red ink writing: "Out!  killer dynasty".  A man behind him carries a Peruvian flag.
A protester in Lima’s Plaza San Martín holds a sign accusing President Dina Boluarte of murder and calling for her resignation on January 4 (Jacob Kessler/Al Jazeera)

Wednesday’s report also details multiple instances of protester violence, including throwing rocks at police and setting buildings on fire. HRW also verified videos showing that some protesters used fireworks against officers in Juliaca, the city where 17 civilians and a policeman They were killed in January.

However, the report notes that the protesters’ actions do not justify the “brutal, indiscriminate and disproportionate response by security forces.”

It also accuses the Peruvian government of “apparent inaction” in the face of alleged abuses against protesters.

Although Attorney General Patricia Benavides has opened investigations into the protesters’ deaths and into President Boluarte’s response, HRW has found “serious flaws” in these criminal investigations.

These alleged flaws include cases of failing to perform autopsies before burials and failing to seize police officers’ weapons for “prompt ballistic analysis.”

The nonprofit organization called for greater accountability in its report. “As of early February, the Home Office had not opened any investigation into police conduct and no police officer had been disciplined or dismissed,” HRW wrote.

A man holds a small handwritten sign in front of a line of protesters holding a banner in the colors of the Peruvian flag.
A protester marches on January 19 with a sign that reads: ‘We are the people, not terrorists,’ refuting a label that the government of President Dina Boluarte has attached to the protesters (Jacob Kessler/Al Jazeera)

But he also pointed to systemic obstacles that have impeded justice, as part of the “deteriorating rule of law” in Peru.

“Sectors of the government have been taking steps to loosen checks on their power,” the report explained, stating that corruption was a “significant” problem and that Congress had taken “steps to undermine the independence of the national electoral system.”

For Úrsula Indacochea, program director of the Fundación Due Proceso Legal, justice will only come when Peru accepts international assistance to investigate the violence of the protests.

International assistance “has happened in very similar cases in other countries,” Indacochea told Al Jazeera. “If the government were to accept this support, it would be an important political gesture that shows that it is truly committed to justice.”

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