African police accused of excessive force during lockdowns

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Days after Congo announced emergency restrictions to curb the new coronavirus, a police video circulating online showed an officer beating a taxi driver violating a one passenger limit.

The driver pleads with officers as they order him face down on the road. Punishment is meted out anyway: a truncheon blow to the calves that leaves him writhing in pain.

Sylvano Kasongo, who heads Kinshasa police and is in the March 26 video, sent a copy to Reuters saying he wanted to encourage others to obey the rules. The force respects human rights, he said.

Reuters was unable to reach the driver in the video, which caused public outrage in Democratic Republic of Congo. The head of the drivers’ union, Jean Mutombo, said members scramble to make a living in lean times.

“We call on drivers to respect decisions taken by authorities to stop the spread of the coronavirus, but at the same time, we condemn violence by the police,” he said.

As in other parts of the world, allegations of police brutality surfaced in several African countries as governments impose lockdowns, curfews and restrictions in response to COVID-19.

Populations who cannot afford to stay locked down for long pose a problem in countries where the virus could overwhelm fragile health systems.

“We need to be careful about the way governments implement these measures,” said Samira Daoud, regional director for West and Central Africa at London-based rights group Amnesty International.

“The people responsible for violations should be sanctioned and a clear message sent to security forces to make sure they respect human rights.”

“EXCESSIVE INTERVENTIONS”

In Senegal, where clashes between police and civilians are rare, the first night of a nationwide curfew in March was marred by violence. Videos posted online showed police hitting fleeing civilians with batons.

Reuters could not verify the footage, but police in a statement apologised for “excessive interventions” and promised to punish officers involved.

Crowded living conditions make it hard to obey rules demanding people keep a safe distance from each other. That has led to clashes.

On the evening of April 2, in Lorokwo West village in northern Uganda, police dispersed people from informal settlements to reduce crowding. They broke down doors and dragged out occupants, injuring 30 women and some men, police said in a statement.

It denounced the behaviour of the officers as “outrageous” and said 10 police and six military officers were arrested.

In South Africa, where police are enforcing a nationwide lockdown, an officer and a security guard were arrested in connection with the shooting death of a man drinking in a township tavern.

No charges were brought against the officer pending an investigation by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, spokesman Sontaga Seisa told Reuters. The security guard was charged with murder.

Videos purporting to show South African security forces beating people who defy the rules with whips and forcing them to do squats are circulating on social media.

South African police spokesman Vishnu Naidoo did not respond to requests for comment. In a statement last week, he said the videos had yet to be verified, but added “such alleged behaviour by security forces is unacceptable and can be neither tolerated nor condoned”.

In Kenya, residents say violence worsened since the outbreak began.

In an incident involving police enforcing the curfew,13-year-old Yasin Moyo, suffered a fatal bullet wound on March 30 while on a balcony in Nairobi.

Police offered condolences to the family and said an investigation was underway.

Seven people were killed by Kenyan police enforcing curfew or lockdown orders, according to Missing Voices, a website documenting police killings run by a coalition of rights groups including Amnesty’s Kenya chapter.

President Uhuru Kenyatta apologised for the violence in a televised speech.

“Maybe in the initial stages there were challenges,” he said. “I want to apologise to all Kenyans for excesses conducted.”