On May 18, 2016, police officers and armed civilians reportedly attacked Universidad de Los Andes (ULA) students, faculty and staff participating in a nonviolent protest, as well as Rigoberto Lobo Puentes, a human rights defender and member of ULA’s Observatorio de Derechos Humanos (ODHULA) who was monitoring the protest.
On the morning of May 18, faculty and administrative unions together with various student groups from ULA’s Merida campus protested in the surrounding neighborhood to demand higher wages and improved working conditions at ULA. During the protest a group of armed civilians on motorbikes reportedly broke into ULA’s Faculty of Medicine, where they shot at and injured several students, set fire to two university vehicles, ransacked faculty offices and stole computer equipment. Police officers on the scene reportedly ignored their actions and attempted to disperse the protesters by force, launching teargas, firing buckshot at close range, and throwing stones. That afternoon, Mr. Puentes was observing the protest on behalf of ODHULA when police officers reportedly shot him with buckshot as he and an unnamed colleague tried to assist injured protesters; they suffered minor injuries. At least 20 faculty and student protesters were reportedly injured by police and the armed group.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the use of force against faculty, staff and student as well as a university human rights defender in retaliation for the nonviolent exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of association and academic freedom – conduct which is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, such incidents have a chilling effect on academic freedom and institutional autonomy. State officials have a responsibility to protect academic freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of association; to refrain from interfering with these rights, so long as they are exercised peacefully and responsibly; and to ensure the security of academic communities; and to investigate and hold perpetrators of violence accountable.