On November 21, 2019, Diana Pinzón and Cristian Angartia, both graduate students in audiovisual production at the National Pedagogic University (UPN), were reportedly violently attacked and detained by the Colombian National Police while returning home from documenting protests as part of their academic work.
Starting that same month, hundreds of thousands of Colombians mobilized a national strike and held demonstrations to protest widespread dissatisfaction across various sectors. The national strike marked one of Colombia’s biggest protest movements in recent years, bringing together coalitions of students, union workers, activists, and pensioners to demand reforms to tax and pension legislative proposals as well as to existing legislation governing minimum wages, and to protest the killing of human rights activists and indigenous leaders. The demonstrations were further fueled by growing frustrations with the Colombian government’s inability to negotiate peace with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
According to a report by Human Rights Watch, the protests were largely peaceful, although some protestors in Bogotá and Cali destroyed public and private property. The Colombian National Police repeatedly clashed with protestors during these mass demonstrations, employing tear gas and stun grenades, and beating protesters with batons. Reports of police violence invoked condemnation by the public and sparked a new wave of demonstrations.
The November 21 attack on Pinzón and Angartia occurred while the two were returning home from recording various protests in Bogotá as part of an academic project that aimed to address the social impact of protest. Sources indicate that Pinzón and Angarita were stopped by police officers on motorcycles near the front entrance of Los Andes University. When one of the police officers approached and demanded that the two students raise their hands, Angarita responded by showing a press pass, given to him by a media company that previously employed him, to show that they were photographers rather than protesters. Two officers then reportedly kicked Angarita to the ground and struck him repeatedly with batons. When Pinzón attempted to intervene, four officers began beating her with batons, knocking her unconscious. Sources further indicate that one officer reportedly confiscated Pinzón’s camera. Bystanders assisted Pinzón to the hospital. Pinzón sustained injuries to her skull, right leg, and lower chest, and required assistance to walk until early December.
According to a Human Rights Watch report, police officers took Angarita to the Candelaria police station in downtown Bogotá without informing him why or where he was being detained. At the station, police officers reportedly pressured Angarita to sign a statement acknowledging that he was arrested for aggressive behavior; Angararita has rejected such allegations. Several hours later, police released Angarita. Angarita reportedly sustained extensive bruising, severe headaches, and back pains as a result of the officers’ use of force.
The next day, Angarita and Pinzón filed a complaint against the Colombian National Police for excessive use of force. As of this report, the status of the complaint is unknown.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the use of violent force against and the detention of students in connection with their nonviolent exercise of the right to academic freedom and based on the suspected exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly — conduct that is expressly protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Colombia is a party. State authorities have a responsibility to refrain from restricting or retaliating against such conduct. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, such incidents undermine academic freedom and harm democratic society generally.