Although mass protests against persistent inequalities decreased due to the COVID-19 pandemic, those that did take place were usually met with excessive use of force by state agents, often resulting in serious injuries. The government misused the law to criminalize protesters, invoking the State Security Law and introducing new criminal laws. The pandemic had a disproportionate impact on those living in poverty and those dependent on public health services, as well as on public health workers.
Mass demonstrations continued in the first months of the year but largely stopped in compliance with measures to curb the spread of COVID-19. The government declared a “state of catastrophe” due to the pandemic in March, which was extended until December. This imposed restrictions on movement and a night-time curfew. Chile was one of the 10 countries worldwide with the highest number of deaths per million inhabitants due to COVID-19, affecting mostly poorer communities and those in vulnerable situations.
Chile failed to adhere to the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean (the Escazú Agreement).
In October, Chile held a referendum and approved a process to draft a new Constitution.
Mass protests continued from January until mid-March, with multiple new incidents of excessive use of force. At least two new criminal lawsuits for alleged crimes against humanity were filed against President Piñera and other officials. At the end of the year, the Regional Prosecutor of Valparaíso was jointly investigating these and other lawsuits filed in 2019.
The National Human Rights Institute expressed concern at the slow pace of investigations into human rights violations that occurred during the mass protests in 2019. In August, the Prosecutor’s Office filed formal charges against policemen accused in cases such as the blinding of Gustavo Gatica and Fabiola Campillai, almost a year after the incidents to which the charges related. Administrative investigations and sanctions by the Carabineros (Chilean National Police) were slow and ineffective, often based on less serious administrative offences rather than human rights violations.
Organizers of “soup kitchens” set up to address widespread hunger said police resorted to excessive use of force to try to shut them down.
In March, during the curfew, police shot Jonathan Reyes in the chest, killing him. The police alleged they acted in self-defence, but video footage showed there was no evident threat when the shot was fired.
As measures to curb COVID-19 were relaxed, protests increased. In October, a 16-year-old protester sustained serious injuries after a policeman pushed him and he fell off a bridge onto the concrete channel of the Mapocho River in the city of Santiago. A policeman was charged and the prosecution produced evidence that police officers did not attempt to help the injured youth.
Recommendations by commissions on police reform set up since November 2019 by government and Congress had yet to be implemented. A bill to “modernize” the police, with a narrow focus on stricter oversight procedures, was before Congress at the end of the year.
The government filed lawsuits against over 1,000 protesters using the State Security Law, which is not in line with international human rights law and carries a risk of political harassment.
An “anti-barricade” law came into force in January, increasing penalties for people who impede free movement by placing objects on streets. The broad and vague definition used in the law risks criminalizing legitimate acts of protest.
Health workers told Amnesty International that, during the peak of the pandemic, they worked in unsafe conditions, with insufficient personal protection equipment and high levels of stress, placing their physical and mental health at risk. They also said that they risked sanctions if they spoke out publicly. This affected mostly public hospitals that provide services to poorer communities. Private clinics did not report these problems and had significantly lower mortality rates.
To reduce overcrowding in prisons, Congress passed a law that enabled over 1,700 prisoners at high risk from COVID-19 to be released and placed under house arrest.
In June, Mapuche women who sell vegetables on the streets in the city of Temuco in the south of the country filed a criminal lawsuit against the Chilean National Police for torture in detention, including forced nudity. The women had been harassed for several years due to a municipal ban on selling goods on the street.
In August, Mapuche protesters occupied the premises of the Municipality of Curacautín in southern Chile. Private individuals came to the building to “support the police” who were ejecting the Mapuche. The individuals shouted racist slurs and allegedly burned a protester’s vehicle. All the Mapuche were detained, but neither the government nor the police took action against the individuals who had engaged in acts against the Mapuche.
The trial of the policemen accused of killing Camilo Catrillanca, a Mapuche, in November 2018 began in March but was suspended due to the pandemic. It restarted in a partly in-person and partly virtual format on 27 October.
The government failed to prioritize sexual and reproductive health care as essential services during the pandemic or issue protocols to provide abortion services for the limited reasons allowed for in law.
In October, Congress rejected a bill to regulate comprehensive sexuality education for young people.
Changes to the anti-discrimination law to expand its scope and include prevention measures as well as reparation to victims was before Congress at the end of the year.
In June, for the first time, a judicial decision recognized in law two women as the mothers of a child and ordered the Civil Registry to register them as a family, which the Civil Registry had refused to do. The child, a two-year-old boy, was registered with two mothers in July.
In December, Congress approved a new bill on migration that could reduce the opportunities for migrants to regularize their legal status once in Chile and undermine the principle of non-refoulement. A group of Congresspeople filed a requirement before the Constitutional Court, asking to declare parts of the law unconstitutional. A decision was pending.
Due to the pandemic, the government initiated a “humanitarian plan of orderly return” for foreign nationals who wanted to return to their countries. People who accessed the plan were required to accept being banned from returning to Chile for nine years. In July, the Supreme Court ruled that this requirement was unlawful.