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Human Rights Commissioner ‘worried’ about excessive use of force by police

Catalonia protest
Photo: Council of Europe

The Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe has expressed her concern at the reports of attacks on journalists covering the demonstrations in Catalonia, calling on the Spanish government to investigate abuse of power by law enforcement officials.

Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic said In a statement she was “worried about a context of growing insecurity for journalists reporting on the situation in Catalonia in recent months, with attacks against journalists on the rise”.

On 18 October, a protest in the Spanish region of Catalonia resulted in parts of Barcelona being shut down, with masked protesters throwing cans and stones at police officers near the Barcelona police headquarters. Law enforcement authorities responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon.

The European Parliament turned down a request to debate the situation in Catalonia, which flared up last week after the Spanish Supreme Court jailed nine Catalan politicians, and activists were given jail terms of between nine and 13 years over their role in an independence referendum in 2017 that had been declared illegal by the Spanish government.

The EP’s refusal to discuss the issue drew criticism, especially in light of last week’s protests.

Commissioner Mijatovic said that reports of attacks on journalists covering the demonstrations had increased, and one photographer had been arrested.The Council of Europe Platform for the safety of journalists recorded 37 instances of attacks, some by demonstrators, but “several accredited journalists, wearing press visibility jackets, have reportedly experienced violent behaviour at the hands of police officers in different cities of Catalonia”.

“In general, I am worried about a context of growing insecurity for journalists reporting on the situation in Catalonia in recent months,” Mijatovic said, “with attacks against journalists on the rise.”

She pointed out that full respect for freedom of expression included the right to receive and to impart information — especially in the current tense situation.

Mijatovic also voiced her concern about allegations of disproportionate use of force and inappropriate use of anti-riot weapons by the police. She acknowledged the numerous challenges faced by police officers who had to confront violent attacks and deal with numerous acts of vandalism on the streets.

She noted that even in such difficult circumstances it was important for the police to “strictly abide by the principles of necessity and proportionality in the use of force” to safeguard the rights of those who demonstrate peacefully.

She referred to several reports, including one from Amnesty International, that highlighted the improper use of weapons such as rubber and foam bullets, which caused serious eye injuries to at least four people. Amnesty International also called on the Spanish government to take every necessary measure to support peaceful assembly and allow people to freely and safely express their beliefs.

As already stressed by her predecessor in a letter to the Spanish authorities in October 2017, Mijatovic pointed out that the use of these weapons “presents a clear danger for the safety of demonstrators. Because of their imprecise and indiscriminate effect, they should not be used against large numbers of persons, including assemblies gathering large numbers of peaceful protesters.”

Mijatovic called on the Spanish authorities to reconsider the use of these weapons in “operations aimed at managing public demonstrations”.

The Catalan National Assembly called on all government and international NGOs to denounce the violence used in the protests, which led to 579 people being injured due to police violence, 14 of which were hospitalised.

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