Chile's Pinera asks for help from military even as abuse allegations mount

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chile’s president asked lawmakers to allow troops back on the streets on Tuesday to defend public infrastructure, even as a human rights group reported “grave” abuses by security forces during five weeks of rioting in one of South America’s richest countries.

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The continuing protests in Chile over inequality and patchy social services have left at least 26 dead and more than 13,000 police and civilians injured. They have also hobbled the capital’s public transport system and caused billions in losses for private business.

Riots have erupted in countries across Latin America, including Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia in recent weeks as regional unrest spiraled into violence and demands for broad-based reforms.

President Sebastian Pinera sent a bill to Congress on Tuesday to allow the military to protect transmission lines, electric plants, airports, hospitals and other public infrastructure in order to assure “basic services.”

He said the move would “free up the police force ... to protect the security of our citizens.”

Pinera’s announcement came shortly after international rights group Human Rights Watch said in a report that police had brutally beat protesters, shot teargas cartridges directly at them, and run over some with official vehicles or motorcycles.

“There are hundreds of worrying reports of excessive force on the streets and abuse of detainees,” said José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division, after meeting with Pinera on Tuesday.

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The group stopped short of alleging the abuses had been systematic, but its conclusions were in line with a report last week by Amnesty International on the seriousness of many violations. More than 200 Chileans have suffered severe eye injuries alone in clashes with police using rubber bullets.

Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have recommended an immediate overhaul of police protocols and accountability measures to address the mounting allegations of abuse.

Human Rights Watch said that while senior police officials had told its researchers about the potential “high risk” of firing rubber pellets in crowd control situations, “police commanders do not seem to have conveyed that risk to the rank and file.”

It said three officers its team interviewed suggested the pellets could not penetrate clothes even at close range, and categorized the risk of them causing serious eye injury as “impossible.”

Police and military officials have said any cases of alleged abuse are under investigation by civilian courts.

Prosecutors said on Tuesday they were studying 2,670 complaints of abuse by security forces, 2,052 of them against the police. The government, meanwhile, said it had asked police general director Mario Rozas to compile a report addressing claims his officers did not follow protocols on the use of force.

“This report must include proposals with corrective measures ... and must be delivered within one week,” said Lorena Recabarren, the interior ministry’s human rights undersecretary.

Reporting by Dave Sherwood and Fabian Cambero; Editing by Tom Brown