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U.N. raises alarm about police brutality in lockdowns

GENEVA (Reuters) - The U.N. human rights office voiced concern on Monday about more than a dozen countries that have declared states of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic where police have arrested or detained hundreds of thousands of people and killed others.

“Emergency powers should not be a weapon governments can wield to quash dissent, control the population, and even perpetuate their time in power,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in a statement that denounced shootings and detentions without being specific.

A top official from her office said about 80 countries have declared emergencies due to the new coronavirus, including 15 where the allegations were deemed most troubling.

They were: Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Peru, Honduras, Jordan, Morocco, Cambodia, Uzbekistan, Iran and Hungary.

However, Georgette Gagnon, director of field operations, added at a virtual briefing in Geneva “there are probably several dozen more we could have highlighted”.

“A main concern on exceptional emergency measures is what has been described as a toxic lockdown culture in some countries,” Gagnon said. “As the High Commissioner highlighted, police and other security forces are using excessive and sometimes deadly force to enforce lockdowns and curfews.”

Some of those countries have arrested and detained tens of thousands of people for violation of confinement measures linked to the pandemic, with the Philippines topping the list with 120,000 apprehended for curfew violations in the past 30 days.

In the case of Kenya, Gagnon said that authorities were investigating 20 cases related to deaths linked to police conduct in implementing curfew measures. The country has reported 14 COVID deaths to the World Health Organization.

President Uhuru Kenyatta has apologised for police violence.

In South Africa, the U.N. has received reports of police using rubber bullets, tear gas, water bombs and whips, to enforce social distancing, especially in poor neighborhoods. Thirty-nine complaints including murder, rape, use of fire arms and corruption are being investigated, Gagnon said.

Police have described the use of whips as unacceptable.

In Nigeria, OHCHR has received reports that security forces killed 18 people in relation to COVID enforcement measures.

Nigerian authorities have attributed some deaths to prison violence.

She also raised concerns about police extortion in Africa.

“Those who cannot pay bribes, poor people, are taken to mandatory quarantine centres although there is no indication that they have come into contact with someone testing positive to COVID.”

Gagnon, asked about China’s record during the crisis, said: “The office has received reports of censorship on and offline, intimidation, arrest and apparent detention of dissenting voices such as doctors, journalists, human rights defenders and members of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party).” The office was liaising with China on around half of dozen of those cases, she said.

Reporting by Emma Farge; editing by Stephanie Nebehay and Giles Elgood

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