Protests against pulp mill met with excessive force in Uruguay

Peaceful Assembly

Protests against pulp mill

On 5th September 2019, hundreds marched in Montevideo to protest the large new pulp mill that company UPM plans to construct in Paso de los Toros, department of Tacuarembó. The march was convened by a coalition of over 60 civil society organisations, the Coordinación Nacional contra UPM (National Coordination against UPM). Critics of the mill believe it will be highly detrimental to the Uruguayan people and the country’s environment. They say that the company’s contract is unconstitutional as it was not submitted to parliament for approval, and also criticise UPM’s alleged interference in education. According to news reports, there were clashes with the police when some protesters painted graffiti during the march. The demonstration ended with four protesters detained and an injured policeman.

Human rights organisation Serpaj (Servicio Paz y Justicia) and the University of the Republic issued public statements condemning the repressive police actions and denouncing the excessive use of force by the police during the march. According to the university, in addition to using rubber bullets indiscriminately against protesters, the police held the detained demonstrators incommunicado for several hours, even though two of them had severe injuries. Serpaj announced they would file a complaint with the National Institute for Human Rights.

On 25th October 2019, another march against the pulp mill gathered thousands of people.

March against constitutional reform

On 22nd October 2019, thousands took to the streets in opposition to a constitutional reform proposal that would change Uruguay’s security policies after years of rising crime. The reform was named Vivir Sin Miedo (“Living Without Fear”) by its proponents, an initiative led by the centre-right National Party. The reform would introduce increased security measures such as the creation of a National Guard with members of the Armed Forces and legislation allowing home searches at night. The march against the proposal was mobilised by the activist group Articulación Nacional No a La Reforma (National Articulation No to Reform). According to the organisers, the protest gathered over 55,000 people in the centre of Montevideo. On 27th October 2019, the reform was rejected by the majority of the population in a plebiscite vote during the general elections.

Expression

A public letter was signed by 41 former prisoners to denounce the ill-treatment and torture of prisoners by retired colonel Antonio Romanelli when he served as a guard at the Libertad Prison between 1978 and 1979. The prisoners’ accusations were a reaction to Romanelli’s nomination to the position of security advisor to presidential candidate Guido Manini Ríos. Romanelli sued news outlets La República, Montevideo Portal and Radio Uruguay because they published the accusations but refused to publish his letter responding to the claims, in which he refutes the former political prisoners’ testimony. A court decision on 30th September 2019 ruled that the three media outlets must publish the colonel’s reply. CSOs such as theCentro de Archivos y Acceso a la Información Pública (Archive and Access to Public Information Centre - Cainfo) considered that this type of decision threatens freedom of expression.

Judge Dolores Sánchez, who accepted the argument that Romanelli has a “right to reply”, referred to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in her ruling. Edison Lanza, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, said that the sentence had conceptual errors and set a bad precedent. According to the specialist, the right of reply is not an “automatic right” but a restriction of freedom of expression which requires exceptional circumstances. In this case, Lanza argues, the requirements are not present because Romanelli was given the opportunity to reply in an interview, which he refused. Lanza said:

“[Romanelli] seeks two things which the judge wrongly grants him, at the expense of freedom of expression. First, he wants to generate an inhibitory effect: send the message to the media that he will take them to trial every time they name him, and secondly, try to impose his version, and avoid public debate.”

On 4th November 2019, an Appeals Court overturned Judge Sánchez’s decision.