MADRID (Reuters) - A Spanish court on Thursday accused 16 law enforcement officers of using disproportionate force against African refugees who were trying to swim to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, a spokesman for Spain's Civil Guard said on Wednesday.
At least 12 people drowned in the incident a year ago, which triggered widespread protests and led the European Commission to question why police had fired rubber bullets at the immigrants while they were in the sea.
The formal accusation comes a week after Amnesty International deplored the failure of the Spanish authorities to properly investigate the incident, which it said indicated disregard for human life on Spain's borders with Morocco.
European Union law states that border surveillance measures must be proportionate to the objectives pursued, respect fundamental rights and human dignity and be carried out in accordance with laws on protection of refugees.
The Spanish territories of Melilla and Ceuta, both along Morocco's Mediterranean coastline, attract thousands of people, mostly sub-Saharan Africans, trying to reach Europe. The would-be immigrants camp just outside both cities and frequently make mass attempts to climb their triple fences lined with razor wire or to swim along the coast.
The refugees a year ago were attempting to swim around a breakwater that separates Moroccan and Spanish waters.
Spain's Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez told a parliamentary commission at the time that guards fired rubber bullets at a distance of at least 25 meters from the migrants while they were in the water.
The shots were never intended to hit migrants, he said, but were used as a deterrent. The actions were appropriate given the aggressive behaviour of the migrants, the minister said.
Reporting By Rodrigo de Miguel; Writing by Sonya Dowsett; Editing by Larry King