South African Police Fire Rubber Bullets at TAC Advocates Involved in Protest Demanding HIV Treatment Access
South African police on Tuesday outside a hospital in the Eastern Cape region fired rubber bullets and smoke grenades at about 700 protesters who were demanding better access to antiretroviral drugs at the hospital, Reuters AlertNet reports. Forty people were injured and 10 people were treated for gunshot wounds after the incident, according to the South African AIDS advocacy group Treatment Action Campaign, which organized the protest (Reuters AlertNet, 7/14). "The police used excessive force against people who were (exercising) their legal right to peaceful protest. ... There was no provocation, no insults or injury from their side," TAC spokesperson Sipho Mthathi said. The protesters marched to Frontier Hospital to pressure the hospital -- which has treated fewer than 200 HIV/AIDS patients in 18 months -- to treat more HIV-positive patients, according to Mthathi. Gcinikaya Taleni, a spokesperson for the police, said hospital management called the police to control the protesters, who had entered the wards and were stopping medical staff from doing their jobs. "The police used minimum force -- rubber bullets -- to scare them off," Taleni said, adding that protesters might have been injured in the stampede that ensued (Kahn, Business Day, 7/14).
AIDS Advocates' Reaction
The U.S.-based advocacy organization Human Rights Watch said in a statement that there was no indication that the South African police adhered to international standards for the appropriate use of force (HRW release, 7/13). TAC said it will press charges against police for excessive force, and HRW has urged the South African government to investigate the incident (Reuters AlertNet, 7/14). UNAIDS in a statement called the South African police's actions "unacceptable" (UNAIDS release, 7/14). "It's a shocking irony that people demonstrating for essential medicines should be met with rubber bullets and tear gas," Jonathan Cohen, a researcher with HRW's HIV/AIDS Program, said, adding, "South Africa should be easing the suffering of people with AIDS, not violently dispersing peaceful demonstrations" (HRW release, 7/13). AIDS Healthcare Foundation President Michael Weinstein said in a statement, "We completely condemn this unprecedented and violent police action against the people of South Africa who were simply asking for lifesaving AIDS treatment" (AHF release, 7/14).