TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – The rights group Amnesty International is alleging widespread abuse of protesters demanding the return of the Honduran president ousted in a coup, saying in a report Wednesday that hundreds of people have been beaten and detained under the interim government.
The London-based organization said its monitors visited one prison where dozens of people were detained for several hours after a protest, many of them with bruises and other injuries from police beatings. Police have also arrested and beaten journalists and human rights advocates at marches, the group said.
Police denied they use excessive force against protesters.
The report coincides with a visit from an Organization of American States panel to investigate allegations of abuse and intimidation against protesters and the media. The OAS later plans to send a delegation of six foreign ministers in a bid to revive stalled negotiations to reinstate Zelaya, who was forced into exile in a June 28 coup.
The government of interim President Roberto Micheletti has increasingly cracked down on pro-Zelaya protests, vowing it will no longer tolerate street blockades, vandalism and other disruptions.
Police spokesman Orlin Cerrato said police try first to negotiate with demonstrators, then use internationally accepted tactics to disperse them. He insisted police move only against protesters who are violent or unlawfully block roads.
Cerrato said protesters last week burned buses and businesses, broke windows, threw rocks and attacked police officers.
“We have had to act based on the level of violence of the protesters,” he said.
The government says it has released most of the people arrested during protests. Last week, prosecutors filed sedition and other charges against more than two dozen Zelaya supporters after violent protests in the capital, Tegucigalpa. Protesters kicked and punched the vice-president of Congress one day and allegedly burned a bus and a restaurant another day.
At least two people have been shot to death during protests. Cerrato said authorities are investigating who fired the shots.
Amnesty said many of the people interviewed were detained at a July 30 march that turned violent when police purportedly charged without warning, “causing panic and chaotic scenes as people tried to flee.” Military personnel, deployed behind rows of charging police, allegedly shouted support for the beatings of demonstrators, Amnesty said.
One teacher, interviewed at a hospital, broke her ankle when police chased her and “pushed her so hard she fell four or five meters (yards),” Amnesty said. A Chilean photojournalist said about 20 police surrounded him, demanded his camera and beat him when he refused, the report said.
A human rights activist said police tied him up with his own shoelace when he tried to prevent them from beating three protesters last week, according to the report. The activist said police charged at demonstrators who were trying to prevent firefighters from extinguishing the bus and restaurant fires.
Zelaya, meanwhile, kept up his campaign to consolidate his support among Latin American leaders, meeting with Peruvian President Alan Garcia in Lima on Wednesday.
Garcia expressed his support for Zelaya’s return to power, saying the crisis must be resolved soon “to help heal this momentary wound to democracy.”
Zelaya renewed calls for tougher action from the United States, Honduras’ biggest trade partner. The U.S. has suspended millions of dollars in development and military aid, but Zelaya called for trade sanctions that he said would swiftly bring down the interim government.
“The measures taken against the coup leaders so far have been lukewarm, soft,” he said.