Two human rights organizations and two press unions filed a precautionary measure before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) requesting protection after national security forces thwarted pacific protests outside Congress on Wednesday and Thursday while President Javier Milei’s omnibus bill was being discussed inside.
The document demanded protection for 35 media workers and lawyers defending demonstrators, whom the police hurt with rubber bullets and chemical agents during the January 31 and February 1 protests. The omnibus bill, which the Lower House partially approved on Friday, includes a deep state reform. Among its provisions, it calls for the privatization of more than a dozen state-owned companies — including state media agencies and outlets — and legislative powers for the president.
The request was filed by the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), the Center of Professionals for Human Rights (CeProDH), the Buenos Aires’ Press Union (SiPreBA), and Argentina’s Photojournalist Association (Argra).
The text accused Federal Police officers of using an “illegal and abusive less lethal” weapon, referencing agents who sprayed chemical hand-held irritants on journalists and demonstrators while also beating them with batons.
The document cites health professionals stating that the chemicals generated a bigger health impact than the typically used ones, including chemical burns with acute pain.
As the Herald reported on Thursday, security forces were using a U.S.-made combination of OC gas (pepper spray) and CS gas (tear gas) to disperse the crowd.
Associated Press photographer and Pulitzer Prize winner Rodrigo Abd told CELS that, on January 31, he was sprayed in the face unprovoked while covering the protest. “My eyes, my hands, and my back were burning — I have covered protests in many parts of the world, and I had never felt such a potent gas,” he said.
“Besides, the march wasn’t neither massive nor violent — it was peaceful.”
SiPreBA General Secretary Agustín Lecchi, who signed the document, told the Herald that there was particular animosity against reporters who were covering the protest. “These numbers would be unexplainable otherwise,” he said. According to Lecchi, the presentation seeks to “guarantee” reporters’ rights to do their job.
“That is, guaranteeing the right to information,” he said.
Lecchi told the Herald that, in the upcoming days, the union would file a criminal complaint against the national authorities who ordered the repression, namely the Security Minister. “We see this as totally unconstitutional and anti-democratic; a move that violates the right to journalistic work,” he said. “Our colleagues were victims of brutal, totally unjustified repression.”
The presentation also states that six people were arrested on Wednesday — four women and two men. “The four women were sitting in the street singing the national anthem when they were deprived of their freedom, and their arrests were therefore completely arbitrary,” the document states.
The next day, three demonstrators were detained for participating in the protests. Two of them had been beaten and shot with rubber bullets, the Buenos Aires City’s Public Defender’s Office confirmed. Those demonstrators were released on Saturday, and the judiciary banned them from going within 1,000 meters of the National Congress. “They are condemned not to exercise their right to protest and their freedom of expression,” lawyer Matías Cremonte said on X.
“The use of force was so abusive that there were assaults on older adults who were not causing harm or posing any kind of threat,” the document said, citing videos recorded on January 31.
Several demonstrators were shot in the face with rubber bullets. Among them were human rights lawyer Matias Aufieri — who almost lost sight in one eye — and a photographer from La Izquierda Diario.
“No demonstrators were cutting off streets or avenues,” the document says. It added that the cops’ provocative attitude “seemed to be aimed at forcing the demonstrators down to the street in order to then repress them.” However, the presentation says that except for one or two people, the group remained on the pavement.
“At a certain point, one of the police motorcycles started shooting; other motorcycles also came up to the square and started shooting indiscriminately, again and again. At that moment, [human rights attorney Matías Aufieri] tells one of the officers that they had shot him in the eye,” the text continues.
The signing organizations argued that the people working at demonstrations, particularly journalists and lawyers defending protestors, face a “growing risk” to their lives and physical integrity. In the presentation, however, they did not demand that the IACHR pronounce itself against the operation.
“The level of violence against these people in the repression carried out on January 31 and February 1 has escalated substantially,” they wrote, adding that the stamp of approval Milei and Security Minister Patricia Bullrich gave the operation are harbingers of worst things to come.
“We are facing the imminent possibility that the next demonstration could be even more violent.”
The groups requested that the IACHR adopt the necessary measures to protect the aforementioned people’s rights to freedom and physical integrity in order for them to carry out their journalistic and legal activities. It also requested an investigation of the reported facts to avoid their repetition.
“They are doing this to intimidate us, to stop us from informing, and to stop people from marching,” Lecchi said. However, he said that journalists would cover the upcoming protests against the omnibus bill.
“We must not give in to this intimidation — we are going to stay in the streets because […] they cannot subjugate the historical rights of our country, our sovereignty, and our social rights that are at stake.”