On May 21, 2015, Chilean police dispersed a group of nonviolent student protesters, using water cannons, clubs, and teargas. Rodrigo Avilés, a 28-year old literature student from Catholic University of Chile and a member of Chile’s National Student Union, was shot with a water cannon at close range, resulting in serious brain injuries.
The protesters — largely students — had gathered in Valpraiso, near the Chilean Parliament, to demonstrate against higher education reform and demand free, quality higher education. They chose to hold the protest on May 21 to coincide with a scheduled speech, by the President of Chile, of a report on recent achievements and future plans for his government. Despite eyewitness reports reflecting that the protest was nonviolent, Chilean police deployed their Special Forces unit to disperse protesters and prevent looting. Shortly after they arrived, a car-mounted water cannon reportedly shot Avilés at point blank range, causing him to fall violently to the ground and hit his head, knocking him unconscious. He was later taken to the hospital where doctors learned that he had suffered a subdural hematoma, and placed him in a medically induced coma. He remained comatose for 20 days, and, after recovering, was subsequently diagnosed with epilepsy, reportedly as a result of his injuries.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the use of force by police against nonviolent student protesters. While authorities have a legitimate interest in maintaining order, they must do so in ways that are proportional to the situation, minimize the risk of physical injury, and otherwise respect freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and academic freedom. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, such incidents chill academic and other forms of expression, and undermine democratic society generally.