Human Lives Human Rights: Reviewing a video footage of the Pakistani doctors and medical students protesting a new qualification exam, the human rights organizations have called on Pakistani authorities to ensure a thorough, independent, and impartial inquiry into allegations that excessive force was used by the Punjab Police against these medics.
Reports say that dozens of police officers baton-charged, used water cannons, and an irritant spray to clear peaceful demonstrators at separate demonstrations in Lahore on 27 and 30 August.
The students and doctors were protesting a new compulsory exam to register with the Pakistan Medical Council, previously reserved for students who received their MBBS degrees from foreign universities.
At least 20 protestors were reported to have been hospitalized following the incidents. Video footage reviewed by human rights groups appears to show heavy-handed use of batons by police which may amount to excessive and illegal use of force.
“Attacking peaceful protestors who present no threat of violence with excessive force is grotesque, punitive, and a violation of the right to peaceful assembly,” said a rights group.
“Health workers have been on the frontlines of the pandemic, and at a time when they must be provided with support and resources, they are being attacked and sent to the hospital as patients. The authorities must launch an immediate investigation into these serious allegations.”
According to the eyewitnesses, at least 20 doctors landed in the Intensive Care Units of two hospitals in Lahore. At least two of them are reported to have sustained bone fractures, while many are said to have suffered burns from an irritant that was sprayed at them by the police and some faced respiratory issues from inhaling the spray.
Dr Mudassar Malik, 24, one of the protestors who sustained grievous injuries on Friday, 27 August, said that after being sprayed directly on his face, he couldn’t breathe and began vomiting. He was rushed to the hospital by emergency services. “I could not open my eyes, it felt like someone had stuck needles in them,” he said.
Dr Akbar Ranjha, 25, another doctor present on Sunday, 29 August, when the clashes erupted, was also sprayed in the face and has a hairline arm fracture. A fellow protestor tried to douse him with water, which made the burns worse. While the police have been quoted in media reports as saying that they used pepper spray, Dr Malik said, “We are doctors. We know that water can relieve the burns from pepper spray. This was not pepper spray. It felt like someone had set us on fire.”
Dr Mahnoor Lodhi, 23, said that the campaign against the exam had been ongoing for the last four months and had been proceeding peacefully. Present at the protest on Friday, 27 August, she was hit on the arm with a baton, before being hit by a water-cannon. “It was supposed to be a peaceful protest. Even if my physical injuries heal, I don’t know how to fix the mental trauma this has caused,” she said.
It is worrying that despite so many people sustaining injuries during the protests, no formal enquiry has been launched by the authorities into the incident even after 11 days. Authorities must seriously scrutinize the policing of protests. From the accounts of the victims, it is unclear if the police attempted to de-escalate tensions and use alternatives to force, to manage the situation,” said Rimmel Mohydin.
Rights groups call for the use of excessive force by the police to be thoroughly, immediately, and impartially investigated. If excessive force is found to have been used, the perpetrators must be held to account for violating the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, guaranteed by Pakistan’s constitution and international human rights law.