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(New York) – Bolivian authorities should ensure a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation of alleged abuses on September 25, 2011, by police against indigenous protesters outside of Yucumo, in Beni Department, Human Rights Watch said today. 

The police used teargas and batons to disperse largely peaceful demonstrators protesting a proposed highway project in the region. The country’s national human rights ombudsman, Rolando Villena, told local radio that “there was excessive use of force” by police. A police commander reported that “at least” 15 protesters were injured. 

“It is vitally important to investigate the allegations of police abuse in Beni and to hold any officers who committed violations accountable,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Even when protesters’ actions warrant some police intervention, the officers involved should only use force if strictly necessary and in accordance with international standards.”

Based on press reports, on September 24, protesters had engaged in skirmishes with the police and groups supporting President Evo Morales, during which several police officers were reportedly wounded with arrows. Protesters detained Foreign MinisterDavid Choquehuanca when he attempted to negotiate with them on behalf of the government, and forced him to march with them for three hours. By the time of the police action the next day, the foreign minister had been released and the skirmishes had ended. 

On September 28, President Morales publicly apologized for the crackdown, saying there had been no presidential order to disperse the protesters. Earlier in the week two members of his cabinet – the ministers of defense and interior – submitted their resignations over the incident.

The United Nations Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials states that “law enforcement officials may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty.” The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms provide that law enforcement officials “shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force” and may use force “only if other means remain ineffective.” When the use of force is unavoidable, law enforcement officials must “exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense.” 

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