How Police and Armed Groups Turned the Pandemic Into a Human Rights Crisis

A new report details how police, paramilitaries, and vigilantes seized on the Covid-19 pandemic to abuse rights and repress dissent.

BEIRUT, LEBANON -- AUGUST 4, 2021: Lebanese Police, in riot gear and vehicles, gather in formation as they push back violent anti-government protesters who tried to storm the compound near the Parliament area, with tear gas, on a grim anniversary for the deadly port of Beirut explosion which killed more than 200 people last year, in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021. The one year anniversary comes after the country has suffered an unprecedented economic crisis, currency devaluation, and a political deadlock which has left the Lebanon without a proper functioning government for the past year.  (MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES)
Lebanese police push back anti-government protesters on the anniversary of the 2020 port of Beirut explosion, in Beirut on Aug. 4, 2021. Photo: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag

In the fall of 2019, months before the coronavirus pandemic swept the globe, a wave of large protests roiled Lebanon, fueled by skyrocketing gasoline prices, mass unemployment, and growing anger at a corrupt and dysfunctional political class.

For several weeks, tens of thousands of people gathered in downtown Beirut and across the country, where they were met with violence by police, the military, and security forces. The uprising led to the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, but the protests continued, and tents set up by activists in the city’s iconic Martyrs’ Square turned into makeshift homes, a mark of the Lebanese people’s lasting disillusion with their leadership.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic. In March 2020, a new government imposed a strict lockdown and dispatched police and Lebanon’s often abusive internal security forces to enforce restrictions. Armed officers cleared the Martyrs’ Square encampment.

“These tents were a form of symbolically and physically reclaiming public spaces,” Karim Merhej, a Lebanese writer and fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told The Intercept. “This was a way of destroying whatever vestiges were left of the uprising. They used the coronavirus, the lockdowns, to basically put an end to it.”

Lebanon was one of dozens of countries around the world where governments seized on the pandemic as an opportunity to impose harsh restrictions, repress dissent, and unleash police and other security forces on citizens under the guise of public health policy. The pandemic brought an abrupt escalation of state-sanctioned violence and a dearth of accountability in countries with authoritarian governments, histories of police abuse, and eroding civil rights, a new report published this week by the International Center for Transitional Justice concludes.

“It soon became evident that the COVID-19 pandemic is far more than a global health crisis — it has also become a human rights crisis,” wrote the group, which works in countries emerging from conflict and repressive regimes. “States have deployed security forces, some of which have been involved in widespread violations of human rights, including torture, killings, and intimidation of people who are perceived as failing to comply with their instructions.”

The report, which focuses on pandemic-related policing in Colombia, Uganda, Kenya, and Lebanon, follows another report published by Amnesty International last year, which documented instances of police and other law enforcement authorities committing human rights abuses under the guise of pandemic-related enforcement in at least 60 countries. Human Rights Watch and other rights groups have also issued several reports on pandemic-related human rights abuses, including torture, in multiple countries. ICTJ, which works to build up accountability in the countries where it operates, particularly focused on the institutional failures that led to pandemic-related abuses, noting in the report that “because of a prevailing culture of impunity in those countries, there were no safeguards to control the use of extraordinary measures and prevent the commission of gross violations of human rights.”

Both national and international laws allow governments to temporarily suspend certain rights in the context of an emergency. But the ICTJ report stresses that the goal of those restrictions should be the collective good and that the measures imposed should be proportionate and applied in a nondiscriminatory manner. Instead, the report concluded, in all four countries, “regular police and paramilitary forces have increased their powers, which they have abused extensively, as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Mohamed Suma, the report’s main author, told The Intercept that political leadership in those and other countries treated the pandemic as “a great opportunity, a great way to amass power.”

Those who bore the brunt of the resulting abuses were often the poorest, including people working in the informal economy and those for whom strict lockdown measures could mean going without food or water. States often dispatched police and security forces to brutally enforce restrictions while failing to provide social safety nets to those most in need of them, Suma stressed.

“What Covid did was to expose the vulnerabilities of those people and put them in the hands of people that claim to be working to secure the common interest,” he added. “The essence of the emergency measures is not to repress, it’s not to be draconian, it’s not to amass power so that you can repress citizens. It’s to protect the people.”

Family members of people killed by Kenyan Police protest in front of the Kenyan Parliament against police brutality in Nairobi on June 9, 2020. - Kenyan police have been involved in the killing of 15 people since the country put a nighttime curfew in place in March 2020 to combat the COVID-19 coronavirus, the policing oversight body said in a statement seen by AFP on June 5, 2020. (Photo by Patrick Meinhardt / AFP) (Photo by PATRICK MEINHARDT/AFP via Getty Images)

Family members of people killed by police protest in front of the Parliament of Kenya on June 9, 2020, in Nairobi, Kenya.

Photo: Patrick Meinhardt/AFP via Getty Images

Police, Paramilitaries, and Vigilantes

By late March 2020, Kenya had recorded just 50 confirmed cases of Covid-19, according to the ICTJ report, and officials imposed a strict lockdown and overnight curfew to keep the virus at bay. Within two months, however, at least 15 people were killed in connection to the measures, including an 18-year-old boy who was beaten to death by police and a 13-year-old who was hit by a stray bullet as officers enforced a stay-at-home order in the capital, Nairobi.

Across the country, police enforcing the lockdown were accused of “shootings, harassment, assaults, robbery, inhumane treatment, and sexual assault.”

Across the country, police enforcing the lockdown were accused of “shootings, harassment, assaults, robbery, inhumane treatment, and sexual assault.”

The country’s law enforcement apparatus has a long history of abuse and human rights violations. While efforts to reform it have been underway in recent years, the pandemic exposed the fragility of such initiatives and underscored the lack of accountability mechanisms and the inadequate vetting and training authorities have put in place, the ICTJ report noted.

But Kenya is hardly alone. Virtually everywhere there were abuses, the pandemic exacerbated preexisting dynamics, providing officials with an “excuse” to act with excessive force and impunity, human rights advocates have repeatedly warned. In some countries, paramilitary and other noninstitutional forces, including in some cases citizen vigilantes, were tasked with or took on the role of enforcers.

Protesters hold placards in front of the Kenyan Parliament during their protest against police brutality in Nairobi on June 9, 2020. - Kenyan police have been involved in the killing of 15 people since the country put a nighttime curfew in place in March 2020 to combat the COVID-19 coronavirus, the policing oversight body said in a statement seen by AFP on June 5, 2020. (Photo by Patrick Meinhardt / AFP) (Photo by PATRICK MEINHARDT/AFP via Getty Images)

Protesters hold placards in front of the Parliament of Kenya during a protest against police brutality on June 9, 2020, in Nairobi, Kenya.

Photo: Patrick Meinhardt/AFP via Getty Images

In Uganda, the enforcement of Covid-19 regulations became the prerogative of the Local Defence Units, a government-sanctioned paramilitary group initially established in 2018 as a community-based crime-fighting force. The initiative was modeled after a similar one in the 1990s, by which men were recruited from villages across the country with a mandate restricted to the areas they came from. The new iteration of the units, by contrast, operates across the country and under the control of the national army, the Uganda People’s Defence Forces. It mostly attracts young, and often poorly trained, men in search of economic opportunity and who can be deployed anywhere in Uganda. Soon after they were established, the LDUs began to operate as a de facto militia for Uganda’s ruling party, the National Resistance Movement, tasked with protecting the interests of the regime more than the public safety of the country’s citizens. Unit members have faced accusations of abuse, most recently in connection to their role during the pandemic.

As Ugandan authorities imposed strict measures last year, including a dusk-to-dawn curfew and the closure of most market stalls, the LDUs were dispatched to enforce the rules, which they did violently and with impunity. By the summer of 2020, the LDUs had killed 12 people in connection to the pandemic measures, the ICTJ report notes — three times the Covid-19 death toll in the country at the time.

“It was about instilling terror and fear in the population.”

The enforcement was intransigent, Sarah Kihika Kasande, ICTJ’s head of office in Uganda, told The Intercept. For instance, authorities imposed a prohibition on motorcycle taxis, which left people who needed to reach hospitals, including pregnant women, stranded. “Whenever they would be on the road, attempting to access services, the LDUs would immediately mete out violence, before even first inquiring whether there were special circumstances that compelled the individuals to be out,” Kasande said. LDUs whipped and shot at street food vendors and others to whom the restrictions left no means of survival. On at least one occasion, Kasande noted, they beat nurses and other medical staff who were trying to get to their jobs.

But the violence was not only illogical — it was also “opportunistic,” Kasande added. “It was about instilling terror and fear in the population.”

A public outcry over the conduct of the LDUs during the first wave of the pandemic prompted the government to temporarily recall them and impose more training — but yielded no official admission of the abuses for which they had been responsible. As Uganda prepared for a general election in January, the units enforced pandemic restrictions along political lines: Supporters of the opposition were not allowed to gather, and several were arrested for violating pandemic-related restrictions, while supporters of the ruling party held large rallies. An estimated 4,000 people attended the swearing-in ceremony for sixth-term President Yoweri Museveni, even as coronavirus cases were on the rise in the country and despite his own government’s official restrictions.

“We saw this approach that clearly indicated that the government saw the pandemic as an opportunity to grab more power,” said Kasande. “The pandemic was a gift to authoritarians, giving them an opportunity to grab power and an excuse to further suppress dissent.”

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA - 2021/09/09: A police officer seen firing tear gas into a crowd of protesters during the demonstration.
The strike is in response to the anniversary of when police killed 13 people during one night in Bogota, Colombia one year ago. The protest is part of an on-going national strike that began in Colombia on April 28th in reaction to tax reforms that would target the poorest in the country. (Photo by David Lombeida/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

A police officer fires tear gas into a crowd of protesters during a demonstration against police killings and brutality in Bogota, Colombia, on Sept. 9, 2021.

Photo: David Lombeida/SOPA Images/Light Rocket via Getty Images

Permanent Emergency

Paramilitaries also played a key role in the enforcement of coronavirus restrictions in Colombia, which, like Lebanon, was roiled by mass protests in the months leading up to the pandemic. In late 2019, hundreds of thousands of Colombians took to the streets amid a declining economy and high unemployment, a stalled peace process, and a slate of pro-elite policies pursued by the government of President Iván Duque Márquez.

Authorities responded to the protests with violence, much of it carried out by the country’s anti-riot squad, the ESMAD, a unit formed as part of a U.S. military assistance program known as Plan Colombia. Then came the pandemic and a severe set of restrictions that economically strangled the more than 42 percent of Colombians living in poverty. To a government facing mass criticism, the measures came as a boon.

“Duque tried to use the excuse of the pandemic to put forward a lot of legislative proposals he wasn’t able to get through because of the protests earlier.”

“Duque tried to use the excuse of the pandemic to put forward a lot of legislative proposals he wasn’t able to get through because of the protests earlier, using the excuse that a whole bunch of checks and balances didn’t have to happen because of the pandemic,” Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, director for the Andes region at the Washington D.C.-based group Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas, told The Intercept.

Among those was a controversial tax hike proposal that sent tens of thousands of Colombians back to the streets in April 2020 for a national strike called by the country’s largest labor unions. “At that point it just exploded, people didn’t care about the pandemic,” said Sánchez-Garzoli. “And that’s when you had these mass demonstrations, and then ESMAD and the police started killing people.”

That wave of protests lasted for nearly two months and was met with even greater brutality than the earlier one. According to the ICTJ report, security forces were responsible for at least 44 murders and 4,687 instances of violence in that time period, with many more deaths reported. At least 168 people disappeared in the course of the protests, at least five of whom were later found dead.

In response to the violence, neighborhood-based groups began to organize to defend their areas from police. Meanwhile, armed groups in several regions across the country were imposing curfews and lockdowns, shutting down movement between different areas, and using WhatsApp and social media to inform local residents of their extrajudicial rules.

In the port city of Tumaco, armed groups banned residents from fishing, which many relied on for sustenance. In other provinces, armed groups torched the motorcycles of people who defied the group’s self-declared authority. Members of armed groups in parts of the country where national authority is weakest killed several people, including at least one community leader who was murdered in the Putumayo region after calling on official authorities to address the unofficial restrictions imposed by paramilitary groups.

While the pandemic is far from over, particularly in countries where vaccines are not widely available, human rights advocates have already warned about the long-term impact of pandemic-related power grabbing and abuses.

In Kenya, where a general election is scheduled for next year, the memory of recent post-election violence and police conduct during the pandemic has led to renewed calls for police accountability mechanisms. In Uganda, despite widespread abuses by LDUs and questions about their training, the military announced plans last month to recruit 10,000 new members. In Lebanon, after a deadly blast at the Beirut port last summer and subsequent shortages of fuel, electricity, food, and medicine, protests have erupted again — though at a smaller scale than the pre-pandemic uprising.

Through it all, crisis features like the country’s military being dispatched to quell protests and distribute humanitarian aid have become more permanent.

“The military has definitely become more involved in several activities where it shouldn’t be involved in the first place. … The way I see it, the military, and not just the military, but the whole security apparatus, are going to become much more violent, much more brutal,” said Merhej. “To put it bluntly, the oligarchy, the political class, the banks, and the security establishment — and they are all intertwined — they’ve won, honestly. They have crushed the uprising, and they have thrown us all into poverty.”

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