Police detain an anti-government demonstrator during a nationwide strike in Bogota, Colombia, on November 21, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo/Ivan Valencia

(Washington, DC) – Colombian authorities should respect the right of peaceful assembly and ensure independent and impartial investigations of police use of force, including killings against protesters, Human Rights Watch and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights said today as they submitted an amicus brief to the country’s constitutional court.

The amicus brief supports a petition to transfer the criminal investigation into the 2019 death of an 18-year-old protester, Dilan Cruz, at the hands of police to the ordinary justice system from the military courts, where it currently stands. The brief also outlines Colombia’s obligations to protect and respect the right to assemble peacefully as well as to ensure victims’ right to an effective remedy.

“The military justice system in Colombia fails to guarantee independent and impartial investigations into human rights abuses and should not handle Dilan Cruz’s case,” said Kerry Kennedy, president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. “Colombian authorities should transfer the case to the ordinary justice system and ensure that Cruz’s family receives the justice they truly deserve.”

On November 23, 2019, Cruz was participating in a demonstration in downtown Bogotá when a member of a special anti-riot police force (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios, ESMAD) shot him in the head. Cruz later died from that wound. Colombian authorities determined that he had been shot with bean bag rounds, which consist of a small fabric pillow filled with pellets, most commonly made of lead. They are intended to be fired at extremities to reduce injuries.

In December 2019, the Supreme Judiciary Council sent the case to the military justice system, where it has made little, if any, progress. So far, no officer has been charged in connection with Cruz’s death.

Cruz’s killing occurred in the context of a national strike that mobilized thousands of Colombians to the streets to protest issues ranging from tax reform proposals to the killing of human rights defenders. While the protests were mostly peaceful, some acts of violence by demonstrators were reported in Bogotá and Cali.

Human Rights Watch found that in several cases, the police used excessive force against protesters, including beatings, and carried out arbitrary detentions.

Abuses by police officers continued in 2020. In September, Javier Ordoñez, a lawyer, died at the hands of police who repeatedly shocked him with a stun gun. The killing prompted hundreds of Colombians to take to the streets in largely peaceful demonstrations. The police responded with force that often appeared excessive, leaving 13 people dead and hundreds injured.

“Colombia’s Constitutional Court should send a clear message that officers responsible for rights violations will be investigated, prosecuted, and punished,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Impunity in cases of police abuse can virtually guarantee that violations will continue.”