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The South African government should immediately investigate the police’s use of rubber bullets and teargas against peaceful HIV/AIDS demonstrators in Eastern Cape on Tuesday, Human Rights Watch said today.

In the Eastern Cape city of Queenstown, local members of the Treatment Action Campaign on Tuesday staged a peaceful demonstration to protest lack of progress on access to antiretroviral treatment for HIV/AIDS in the province.

Without warning, police assaulted the protestors and opened fire with rubber bullets and released teargas as people ran away. Forty people were injured and 10 were treated for gunshot wounds, according to the Treatment Action Campaign. None of the protestors was arrested or charged with any crime.

“It’s a shocking irony that people demonstrating for essential medicines should be met with rubber bullets and teargas,” said Jonathan Cohen, researcher with Human Rights Watch’s HIV/AIDS Program. “South Africa should be easing the suffering of people with AIDS, not violently dispersing peaceful demonstrations.”

There is no indication that the actions by the South African police met international standards for the appropriate use of force by police. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials provides that police shall, as far as possible, use nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. Whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, police must exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense and the legitimate objective to be achieved, and also minimize damage and injury.

Tuesday’s demonstration followed six months of failed negotiations between AIDS activists and local health authorities about access to antiretroviral treatment for persons with HIV/AIDS. In December, the Eastern Cape Health Department stopped providing treatment to new patients until further notice. The government referred patients already on treatment to Frontier Hospital in Queenstown, but activists say that hospital is treating fewer than 200 of an estimated 2,000 people in need. Since the hospital established a waiting list for treatment, more than 50 patients have died.

South Africa is home to about 5.3 million people living with HIV/AIDS. In November 2003 the government committed to providing 53,000 patients with free antiretroviral treatment for HIV/AIDS by March 2004. Even by March 2005, only about half that number were receiving treatment, according to the Treatment Action Campaign. Human rights organizations have criticized the slow progress of the provision of treatment and the South African government’s lack of commitment to HIV/AIDS treatment programs.

“South African AIDS activists did not resort to violence,” said Cohen. “Instead, their government did.”

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