In the name of the law: Confronting demonstrators with violence


Police officer in a heated exchange of words with a protester

With about 38 days to elections, the E.C is facing a string of law suits by political parties over the disqualification of their presidential candidates from contesting the top seat of government. If these cases are not handled well by the Electoral Commission and the courts, there is the tendency for protests and picketing. In the instance where any of these gatherings lead to clashes with police, are security agencies ready to handle the situation tactically to prevent it from degenerating?

Tear-gas clouds fill up the air. People running with no direction in mind. Bullets and stones punctuate the atmosphere, flying from all directions. Splashes of hot water gush from water cannons. There is so much confusion, tension and feeling of volatility everywhere.

This is no war scene from a Hollywood movie or anything close to fiction.

It is half past one, under the suffocating heat of events unfolding on the Asylum Down – Ridge stretch in Accra. The quest of hundreds to protest against the use of the current electoral register for the impending elections next year had turned chaotic, violent and brutal. The demonstration began from the convening grounds – Obra Spot near Circle and was expected to end with a petition submission to the Electoral Commission at the Accra Hearts of Oak Park.

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Protesters at the Let My Vote Count Alliance demonstration

 

However, the organizers of the demonstration, Let My Vote Count Alliance (LMVCA) have diverted from the agreed course and are making their way to the office of the Electoral Commission, when police blocked the route and repelled protesters with heightened force.

With about 38 days to elections, the E.C is facing a string of law suits by political parties over the disqualification of their presidential candidates from contesting the top seat of government. If these cases are not handled well by the Electoral Commission and the courts, there is the tendency for protests and picketing. In the instance where any of these gatherings lead to clashes with police, how prepared are security agencies to handle the situation tactically to prevent it from degenerating?

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Public Relations Officer of the Ghana Police Service, DSP Cephas Arthur.

In a newly built block for Public Relations Unit of the Ghana Police Service, head of the department Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Cephas Arthur sits in an airy office, with a trophy shelf behind him, displaying the array of awards and honours the police service has clinched over the years. He explains the graduation of force the police is required to use in dispersing protesters if they breach the regulations of demonstrations.

Whenever protesters try to disobey the laid down rules, the police comes in to prevent the violations through various engagements. With a megaphone, the police shall negotiate with demonstrators. If they are not heeding and entering into acts of lawlessness, law enforcement officers use the batons, shields or crush barriers to push and strike their limbs. “Sensitive body parts such as head, chest and spines are no go areas”, DSP Arthur stressed.

If demonstrators are forceful and overpowering, police can then scale up their force to the next level. This is the use of water cannons – a device that ejects a powerful jet of hot water used to disperse moderately-charged crowd. If they disregard the water cannons, go ahead to threaten lives and damage property, the use of the teargas is activated. Tear gas is a form of chemical weapon with the powerful effect of causing severe irritation to the eyes, chiefly used in riot control to force crowd dispersal.

“That is where we got to and Let My Vote Count Alliance got dispersed. It can get to a point where lives of the police officers are under threat, then you can discharge rubber bullets. This can go on up to live ammunition but it doesn’t often get there. Even with LMVCA, I am reliably informed that we didn’t even discharge rubber bullets. But the problem with some of media houses is that they took sides and that is to be understood as some media houses are an extension of political parties”, DSP Arthur lashed out.

There have been a few clashes between police and demonstrators but none was more vividly captured like the LMVCA issue. Easy access to technology such as mobile phones and cameras has made it easier for just about anyone to pull out a camera and quickly document an encounter with police. Several media houses carried live the protests between police and LMVCA, as well as pictures of officers chasing and beating demonstrators with horse whips dominating the social media space.

If the use of graduated force is to scatter crowds why do officer still chase demonstrators who are dispersing and hit them? I put that question to DSP Arthur. He responded with an analogy likening the situation to a robbery incident. “If you called me that armed robbers had come to your house and were robbing you and even in the course raping your daughters; when I got there as a police officer I saw them running away and I will say, oh now they are running away so it is nothing?”

Police officers flog protester.
Police officers flog protester.

Questioning the application of his analogy to demonstrators, DSP Arthur retorted, “It is applicable. It is both breaking the law. It is both breaching the peace by violating the law. If you do something wrong as a demonstrator, you are liable. Else he will leave and do it again hence the law must deal with you, even if I have to chase and arrest you.”

Lawyer and senior member of pressure group Occupy Ghana, Ace Anan Ankomah disagrees strongly with police beating demonstrators who are dispersing. “Do you believe there is any law in this country which gives the police the right to beat any person? To the extent that someone lost an eye? We saw this in the apartheid regime. The police has no power to beat anybody. Where does the law say that if a demonstrator is using an unapproved route, you can beat the demonstrator? You should be sick in the stomach to hear a police officer say this.”

Lawyer and senior member of Occupy Ghana, Ace Anan Ankomah
Lawyer and senior member of Occupy Ghana, Ace Anan Ankomah

The processes and conduct of demonstrations are captured in the Public Order Act 491 of 1994. The act, which makes provision for the maintenance of public order, tasks the police with assisting in the proper conduct of any special event to prevent obstruction of pedestrian and vehicular traffic. It also outlines the responsibility of the police to disperse crowds when any breach of peace is likely to occur, has occurred or is occurring to prevent violence, restore order and preserve the peace.

There have been a few clashes between demonstrators and police officers in Ghana. In June 2011, two people lost their lives from gunshot wounds as police tried to calm down irate youth in Madina demonstrating to claim ownership of a parcel of land belonging to the Faith Community Baptist School Complex.

The use of horsewhips by police is disallowed by as it is not part of the tools for riot control. Investigations are ongoing to sanction officers found to have used the whip on demonstrators. A year down the line, the finding of the investigations into the conduct of police during the riots are yet to be made public. “They are been investigated so they can be reprimanded, talked to or given orientation about the use of police accoutrement.”

Asked if suspension of officers found liable by the internal inquiry is possible, DSP Arthur downplayed severity of the issue. “Not much like a serious whipping of a person. I watched the clips” he brings out CDs from a drawer. “I didn’t see police officers beating anyone who was arrested like a thief. People have exaggerated the situation so much,” he added.

Let My Vote Count Alliance Demonstrations
Let My Vote Count Alliance Demonstrations

However, Ace Anan Ankomah has no confidence in the ongoing police inquiry. “We all know Ghana, nothing will happen, wake me up the day that happens. The police is justifying the beatings and yet saying those who have been found to have used horse whips will be reprimanded?”

Asked if the police overreacted during the LMVCA demonstration, DSP rebutted. “What is overreaction? I don’t know what you call overreaction as the police believe that they acted very professionally. Except that when a situation escalates, you get one or two officers who will do things overboard. No one has looked at the other aspect, where law abiding citizens, people who claim to be democrats have decided to disobey the symbol of democracy.”

For victims of such police brutality, Lawyer Ace Ankomah charged them to seek legal redress. “Sue the living daylight out of the police. Of course there are precedents where abused civilians have won cases against security agencies. The actions of the police is illegal and a breach of the constitutional right. It is a breach of international law.”

 

 

 

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In the name of the law: Confronting demonstrators with violence

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