Colombia’s Duque looks to get tough on vandalism, critics decry attack on protests

Colombia's President Ivan Duque speaks during an interview, amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Bogota, Colombia

Colombia’s President Ivan Duque will present a new law before the country’s Congress to increase prison sentences for vandalism, road blocks and attacks on police during protests, he said on Thursday, sparking criticism the law will criminalize protests.

Colombian law already includes jail sentences of around eight years for obstructing public highways, violence against public servants and property, but Duque did not say by how much he was looking to increase prison time.

“We’ve seen some acts of vandalism that have destroyed public infrastructure, that have burned municipal courthouses, that have also attacked commercial premises and clearly we need to toughen penalties,” Duque told reporters.

Since the end of April, the Andean country has seen anti-government protests across the country, the majority of which have been peaceful.

Although protests began in opposition to a now-withdrawn tax reform – which prompted the resignation of the former finance minister – demonstrators have since widened their demands to include calls for a basic income, opportunities for youth and an end to police violence.

Almost all blockades have been lifted from highways, but smaller protests continue in cities such as Bogota, the capital, with clashes reported between police and demonstrators.

The attorney general’s office has so far linked 24 deaths to the protests, with another 11 under investigation. However, rights groups accuse security forces of killing dozens more protesters.

Opposition politicians accused Duque of working to criminalize protests.

“The anti-vandalism law proposed by Duque will surely go in the direction of becoming an instrument to criminalize demonstrations and restrict the right to peaceful protest”, said Sergio Marin, a congressman for Comunes, the political party of the now-demobilized FARC guerrillas.

“Peaceful protest is a constitutional right that we all have, and peaceful means without violence and without violating the rights of others,” Duque said, adding that vandalism was not part of the protests.

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