(New York) – Security forces used excessive force to disperse largely peaceful demonstrations in Quito, Ecuador on September 17 and 18, 2014, arbitrarily detaining and beating protesters, Human Rights Watch said today. Based on interviews and written testimony, dozens of detainees suffered serious physical abuse, including severe beatings, kicks, and electric shocks, during arrest and in detention.
A minority of protesters engaged in violence, clashing with police and leaving more than 30 officers injured. However, local human rights advocates who were at the demonstrations or interviewed detainees told Human Rights Watch that the victims of abuse included many peaceful protesters and bystanders.
“Protesters who engage in violence should expect to be held to account, but under no circumstances should they be brutalized in detention, nor should their due process rights be violated,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas executive director at Human Rights Watch. “And there is no excuse for using violence against peaceful protesters or bystanders.”
Ecuadorian authorities should conduct thorough and impartial investigations into the security forces’ violent crackdown and allegations of abuse and torture against protesters, Human Rights Watch said. The government should also stop harassing lawyers and media outlets that report on or denounce abuses.
Human Rights Watch interviewed witnesses, lawyers, and a victim in a case involving eight detainees. Human Rights Watch also reviewed the written testimony given to state prosecutors of 19 detainees, as well as court records and medical and other reports.
“Wilson,” a 17-year-old student, told Human Rights Watch that police accosted and detained him, knocking him to the ground, as he headed home from school at about 7 p.m. on September 17. The officers beat and kicked him as he lay on the ground, he said, and ran over his arm and leg with a motorcycle. He lost consciousness and woke up in a police station, where policemen sprayed pepper spray in his face, kicked him, and stepped on his neck, while shouting: “Fag, now you should throw rocks!” He was taken to a hospital at about 1 a.m. and released without charge, but spent two days hospitalized with his injuries, including cranial trauma.
A confidential report by the Ecuadorian Red Cross, which was leaked to the media, said that 47 of 53 detainees visited in detention showed signs of injuries.
No one has been held accountable for these abuses, as far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine.
More than 270 people were arrested during the protests, according to local human rights groups. Within 24 hours of being detained, more than 100 detainees were brought before judges and charged with offenses such as attacking or resisting authority and damage to public or private property. Lawyers and human rights advocates said that the detainees were not informed of the charges against them before the hearings and had no contact with family members or lawyers until immediately before the hearings. Dozens of other detainees, who were minors, were released without being brought before a judge.
The administration of President Rafael Correa responded to reports and allegations of abuse by publicly congratulating the National Police on their role during the protests, threatening to prosecute lawyers who reported human rights violations for lying, and challenging media outlets that published information on the abuses.
“Correa has shown absolutely no concern for the rights of the protesters,” Vivanco said. “Instead, he has applauded the police who beat them up, and threatened lawyers and journalists who exposed their brutal mistreatment.”
The September Protests
On September 17, tens of thousands of people – workers, students, indigenous leaders, and activists – participated in demonstrations throughout Ecuador over issues including a proposal to reform labor legislation, proposed increases in public transportation costs, access to public university education, and concerns over government policies to promote extractive industries.
In Quito, approximately 20,000 people joined anti-government protests called by unions, while the government organized a parallel demonstration for at least 8,000 supporters, according to media accounts. Another anti-government demonstration with fewer protesters took place in Quito on September 18.
On both days, there were confrontations between demonstrators and security forces in several parts of the city. The police detained more than 270 protesters or bystanders, including dozens of minors who were released later that night without being brought before a judge, according to local human rights groups.
Human Rights Watch carried out a fact-finding mission to Ecuador at the end of September, reviewing the testimony given to state prosecutors by 19 detainees, and interviewing another detainee and more than 10 lawyers and human rights defenders who were involved in the legal defense of cases or who witnessed the demonstrations. Human Rights Watch reviewed medical reports, police reports, official summaries of judicial hearings, and one available ruling, as well as the previously leaked Ecuadorian Red Cross report.
Human Rights Watch uses pseudonyms in all cases described below to protect the victims’ identities.
“Wilson” told Human Rights Watch that he left classes at the Mejía School, a public secondary school, at approximately 7 p.m. to take the bus home. He said he was not participating in the protest but became afraid when he saw a group of police officers on motorcycles riding toward protesters standing in front of the school entrance, and he started running away with a group of students, some of whom were leaving the protests.
Two officers on a motorcycle came up alongside Wilson, and one kicked him, knocking him down. When Wilson got up, a motorcycle driver raised the motorcycle on its back wheel and struck him on the back with the front wheel, knocking him down again.
The policemen held him down, and several hit him, while another ran over his left arm and later his left leg with a motorcycle. The policemen handcuffed Wilson, placed him on one of the motorcycles, and the officer behind him hit Wilson with his fist and police baton on the head until he lost consciousness.
Wilson woke up on the floor of an office in the UPC Basilica police station. When he opened his eyes, one of the three officers there kicked him in the neck and face, breaking a tooth. The officers sprayed pepper spray in his face, kicked his legs, arms, and back, and stepped on his neck, shouting, “Fag, now you should throw rocks!”
Half an hour later, the officers brought in another detainee, whom Wilson recognized as a fellow student, and threw him on top of Wilson. An hour-and-a-half later, the police brought in six other detainees, all with visible signs of beatings, Wilson said.
Police cuffed their hands behind their backs and forced them to squat for a half hour, beating them if they sat down. An officer demanded their names and hit them with the point of his pen on their heads when they did not immediately respond. The police took their personal belongings, including cell phones and cash.
The police put all eight detainees in the back of a police car, which typically fits three people, and drove them to the Unidad de Flagrancia, building, which has a detention center and the judicial services unit where people caught in the act of committing a crime are prosecuted. On the way to the car, an officer kept hitting Wilson, who had difficulty walking and was bleeding in several places.
They arrived at the building’s underground garage at about 10:30 p.m. Wilson said about 100 detainees were there, including at least 8 more with visible signs of beatings.
Wilson and about 60 detainees were taken to a large cell in the building, with the detainees grouped based on where they were arrested. Two hours later, at about 1 a.m., he was taken to see a doctor in the same building. The doctor told the officers to immediately take him to a hospital. Two officers ordered him to climb “quickly” up the stairs and to a police car.
Wilson had not been allowed to contact his family or seek legal counsel, but he had managed to surreptitiously call his mother with the help of another detainee whose phone had not been taken away. He told his mother where he was and that he thought his arm was broken.
Wilson’s mother, Alicia, had tried to reach her son on his cell phone, but her call was answered by an unidentified individual who told her Wilson had been “detained in flagrante.” She went to the building around 10:30 p.m. and waited with about 200 other detainees’ family members for information. Despite the family members’ repeated requests to confirm the names of detainees and Alicia’s questions about her son’s health, police officers said only that family members would be called by name when they were to be allowed to see a particular detainee.
Alicia saw the two officers escorting Wilson out of the building and ran toward them, yelling that she wanted to accompany her son to the hospital. Alicia rode with Wilson in the police vehicle to the Eugenio Espejo Hospital, where he was hospitalized for two days. A police officer remained at the hospital until 3 a.m., and several others visited Wilson’s room during his stay at the hospital over the next two days. Alicia said she found those visits intimidating.
When Wilson arrived at the hospital he could barely walk, could not raise one of his arms, and was bruised and bloody. The medical report reviewed by Human Rights Watch said he was diagnosed with “cranial trauma” and other injuries. When Human Rights Watch interviewed him on September 30, Wilson was still wearing a neck brace, had difficulty walking up and down stairs, and had scars around his wrists.
Alicia told Human Rights Watch that while she waited for her son at the emergency room, she met two other mothers who said their children had also been abused by police in detention. She was told one was a 14-year-old boy who had been run over twice by a police motorcycle and was in intensive care, and the other was a 16-year-old boy who was thrown down by police officers, breaking his cheekbone.
On September 25, lawyers from the Ecuadorian nongovernmental organization Regional Foundation of Human Rights Counseling (Fundación Regional de Asesoría en Derechos Humanos, INREDH) filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office requesting an investigation into the abuses against Wilson.
Arbitrary Detentions and Excessive Use of Force
On September 18, the National Police used excessive force to disperse student demonstrations in front of the Mejía School, detaining participants, students who were leaving school but not involved in protests, and others who were inside school premises, according to official documentation and human rights observers interviewed by Human Rights Watch.
A total of 60 people were detained at about 10 p.m., taken to Regimiento Quito police station, held there until 6 a.m., and then taken to the Unidad de Flagrancia building. They were not allowed to communicate with their families or lawyers until September 21.
Dozens of detainees arrested on September 18 were physically abused by security forces as they were rounded up and during the initial hours of their detention. On September 24 and 25, the Ecuadorian Red Cross examined 53 detainees in pretrial detention and reported that a week after they were detained, 47 of them had physical injuries. In eight cases, the Ecuadorian Red Cross found that the detainees required “special medical treatment,” including X-rays, dental care, and surgery, and in an additional seven cases, it reported that detainees had bruises or fractured bones.
Human Rights Watch obtained copies of medical reports for the 60 detainees, including 26 that documented injuries produced “by the blow of a blunt object.” In five other cases, the reports recommended that detainees receive special medical treatment (two of the five were not among the eight cases that the Ecuadorian Red Cross had identified, as mentioned above).
Among the 19 cases of testimony to prosecutors that Human Rights Watch reviewed are the following:
- “Cristian,” 19, who said he was outside the Mejía School waiting for a friend when he got a call from another friend inside the building saying he was not feeling well. Cristian went to look for his friend, and was in the bathroom when police officers entered and forced him out of the bathroom and to lie with others face down on the patio floor. The officers beat him with their helmets, kicked him in the face, and pulled his hair. Then the police took the detainees out of the school. Cristian said he felt what he described as officers giving “[him] electric shocks in his back” and poking him with sticks. As they were leaving the building, a policeman said, “Don’t hit them anymore because there are cameras here.” Once they arrived at the police station, the officers continued to kick and beat them, and said, “Now shout in favor of the Mejía [School]! Now you’re going to [the] Latacunga [prison]!” A medical report said Cristian had head injuries, and the Ecuadorian Red Cross reported he had bruises and felt pain on his head and back.
- When “Diego,” 21, left classes at 9:40 p.m., he noticed that police officers had surrounded the school, so he stayed inside. Officers detained and beat him in the school, then took him to a police station, where officers beat him with batons, kicked him in his ribs and back, gave him electric shocks on his legs and ankles, pulled his hair, threw pepper spray at him, and stepped on his hands. The Ecuadorian Red Cross reported that he suffered “intercostal neuralgia,” nerve pain in the rib cage area.
- “Leonardo,” 19, was heading toward the trolley to return home after classes at about 9:30 p.m. when police detained him, beat him with police batons and their fists, gave him electric shocks on the left side of his abdomen, and took him to the police station on a motorcycle. At the station, the officers shouted at him and at other detainees, “son of a bitch, go now to the demonstrations!” Leonardo was forced to sit on the station’s patio floor, where he was given another electric shock. The Ecuadorian Red Cross reported that he had sprained his wrist.
- “Federico,” 18, was detained when he was leaving classes at 9:30 p.m. The officers beat him in the chest, waist, and back with police batons, and kicked him in various parts of his body. The Ecuadorian Red Cross reported that he had physical injuries.
- “Lucio,” 19, was leaving work at a printing shop near the Mejía School when two policemen detained him at around 9:45 p.m. without allowing him to explain why he was there. The officers put him onto a motorcycle and beat him with a police baton on the head, ribs, and neck until he lost consciousness. He woke up at the police station, where he was beaten and insulted, and finally released in the morning. The Ecuadorian Red Cross reported that he was suffering pain in his neck and arm, had a 7-centimeter ecchymosis, or bruise, and recommended medical tests for neck injuries.
- After leaving his father’s shop, “Gregorio,” 18, saw confrontations between police officers and protesters, and decided to seek refuge inside the Mejía School. When a police officer approached him, Gregorio tried to explain why he was there, but the officer immediately punched him in the face and he fell to the floor. A police officer grabbed his arms and stepped on his back while another one kicked him in the ribs, and a third one pulled his head up and sprayed pepper spray in his face.
Due Process Violations
According to official documents, people detained on September 17 who were brought before a judge the following day include 34 who were arrested close to the Montúfar School, a public secondary school, and accused of attacking the police. The evidence against them was a single police report that says all of them were detained at 5 p.m. The report includes a list of names but does not specify what each was doing when they were detained. In the hearing, 31 were charged with attacking or resisting public authority, which carries a sentence of up to two years in prison, and were released pending trial. The other three were released without charge.
Many detainees did not have access to their lawyers until half an hour before their hearings, and then were only able to consult with the lawyers in the presence of police officers or penitentiary guards, human rights advocates said.
Also on September 17, nine additional people, including at least four who said they were not participating in the demonstration, were arrested in the Plaza San Francisco, where the anti-government rally ended. They were charged with attacking or resisting public authority, pre-meditated and committed jointly with others, an aggravated offense that carries a sentence of up to three years in prison.
On September 18, 60 people were detained, and charged on the following day, with damage to public or private property that paralyzes public services, which carries a sentence of up to three years in prison. The police report does not specify what evidence justifies each detainee’s arrest, nor does it explain which services were paralyzed. They were not allowed to contact their families or lawyers before the hearing. At the hearing in which they were charged, the vast majority was represented by public defenders assigned to them. Only one public defender raised the issue of the physical abuse of his five clients in detention.
Under Ecuador’s constitution and laws, pretrial detention should be an exceptional measure, and detainees with visible signs of torture or cruel or degrading treatment should be immediately released awaiting trial. Yet on the prosecutor’s request but without any specific evidence to justify its necessity, the judge ordered 53 of the detainees kept in pretrial detention, releasing the others to await trial. The lawyers for those kept in detention filed a habeas corpus motion with the court, but it was rejected on September 25. As noted above, the Ecuadorian Red Cross was able to examine the detainees on September 24 and 25.
None of the 53 were allowed to contact their families or private lawyers until September 21, three days later, according to human rights defenders subsequently involved in the case. This is a violation of the protections provided for in article 77 of the Ecuadorian constitution, which states that an agent who detains a suspect must immediately inform the detainee of his or her right to contact a lawyer or a family member, and that detainees may not be held incommunicado.
After finally speaking with the lawyers of their choosing, all of those charged on September 19 – the 53 plus 7 other defendants not held in pretrial detention – agreed to be tried on October 2 and 3 in summary trials, an expedited criminal procedure in which the facts alleged against the accused are stipulated to have taken place. A judge acquitted 6 of them; convicted 16 others of damaging public or private property and paralyzing public services, sentencing them to 2 months in prison; and convicted 38 more as accomplices to the crime, imposing suspended sentences and requiring that they complete mandatory work or study assignments and repair the damage they are said to have caused.
Human rights defenders at the hearing said that, during the trial, the defense attorneys told the court that their clients had been physically abused. However, in the official record of the hearing, there is no record that the judge took any action to have prosecutors investigate the allegations. In the ruling, made public on October 12, the judge said there was no evidence that the detainees had been abused, nor that there had been any due process violations.
Government Reaction and Harassment of Lawyers, Media
On September 20, during his weekly TV show, President Rafael Correa congratulated the National Police for their actions during the demonstrations, and accused demonstrators of attempting to “overthrow the government.” A week later, he criticized the media for publishing an article on Wilson’s case, and claimed it was not possible to detain “violent” protesters with “rose petals.”
The president also said that “legal action” should be taken against lawyers, who “are not entitled to lie.” On September 23, Interior Minister José Serrano tweeted that he was calling on lawyers who had argued that detainees had been subject to abuses to present evidence within 48 hours that even “one member of the National Police” had tortured them. On October 4, President Correa called lawyers “compulsive liars” in his weekly TV show, and the Justice Minister said that the government had filed a complaint against lawyers before the Council of the Judiciary.
On September 24, a law firm in Spain representing the Ecuadorian public TV station and the Communications Ministry accused a Facebook user of violating US copyright law by using images of Correa’s TV show in a video of police abuse allegedly committed during the protests. The images of abuse had been shown with images and the voice of President Correa supporting police actions. The firm asked Facebook to eliminate the link to the video in the account, which it did. On September 29, the same video was removed from a YouTube channel following a request by the Ecuadorian Communications Ministry, although YouTube subsequently reinstated it, according to a “copyright infringement notification” sent by YouTube to the person who had posted the video, which was reviewed by Human Rights Watch.
On October 10, the newspaper El Comercio published a letter by the Interior Ministry’s legal adviser criticizing the paper’s coverage of the allegations of abuse, saying an article El Comercio had published contained “false, decontextualized, despicable, and unfounded” content, and did not report the official version of the events. The paper published the letter with an editorial note stating that the article had included the official version, and that it was based on official information.
Under the 2013 Communications Law, which grants the government broad powers over the media, all information disseminated by media outlets must be “verified” and “precise,” and any individual may request an outlet to “rectify” information that does not meet these standards. It also prohibits “media lynching,” defined as “repeatedly disseminating information with the purpose of discrediting or harming the reputation of a person or entity.”
On September 30, the statutory body responsible for the “regulation and development of information and communications,” CORDICOM (Consejo de Regulación y Desarrollo de la Información y Comunicación), issued a news release expressing concern about the print and audiovisual media coverage of the protests.
CORDICOM said that outlets had failed to cover different versions of the events “equally” and that their coverage may have “distorted the integral understanding of the facts.” The news release reminds the media that information should be “truthful” and that communications are a “public service that must be provided with quality and responsibility.” Under the Communications Law, media outlets that violate its terms can be subject to costly fines or forced to apologize publicly.
On October 1, an opinion show “The 24 hour Breakfasts” with María Josefa Coronel, aired weekdays at 7 a.m. by the private TV station Teleamazonas, addressed the allegations of abuse by police officers during the protests. The following day, the Communications Ministry ordered Teleamazonas to interrupt Coronel’s show to air a seven-minute mandatory broadcast (cadena) stating that the show aired the previous day was “unacceptable.”
The ministerial broadcast claimed that the police had not committed excesses, and said Coronel had not discussed abuses against the police. The video concludes by saying, “Mrs. Coronel, your interview had the only purpose of harming the National Police,” and calls on competent authorities to “take action based on the discrimination and accusations that the police has suffered from this media outlet.”
Correction: The original version of this news release erroneously referred to the Ecuadorian Red Cross as the International Committee of the Red Cross.