‘Harsh Police Response’ to Refugee Protests Under Review Skip to content

‘Harsh Police Response’ to Refugee Protests Under Review

The actions taken by police against protestors in Austurvöllur square on March 11th were discussed at an open meeting of Alþingi’s Judicial Affairs and Education Committee on Thursday, RÚV reports. Individuals who had worked with refugees and asylum seekers in Andrými, a radical social space, were invited to the meeting, as were individuals from the Icelandic Red Cross, capital area police chief Sigríður Björk Guðjónsdóttir, Chief Superintendent Ásgeir Þór Ásgeirsson, and the police oversight committee.

On the day in question, an anti-deportation demonstration being held by the group Refugees in Iceland took an ugly turn when police pepper sprayed a number of asylum seekers and protesters and made two arrests. According to Vísir, this is the first time that police have used pepper spray since 2009, despite the fact that there have been 130 public protests since then. Police maintain that the actions they took were justified, saying that protesters were preparing to camp illegally in the square and to set fire to a pyre they were building from cardboard and wooden pallets. Demonstrators contend, however, that they were simply writing protest signs and had, moreover, obtained permission from the city to set up tents.

Logi Már Einarsson, the chair of the Social Democratic Alliance, was among the first to criticize police behaviour on March 11. “Today I witnessed an unusually harsh police response against a group of people in a particularly vulnerable position,” he wrote in a Facebook post on March 11. “I don’t remember such a comparatively small protest having been met with such actions. I saw, at least, nothing to justify such.”

Police Say Use of Force Proportionate

During Thursday’s meeting, however, Vísir reports that Chief Superintendent Ásgeir Þór Ásgeirsson said that police response was proportionate, giving the example of a protester who he said repeatedly kicked an officer and another who tried to prevent the kicking protester from being arrested. Ásgeir Þór also said that police used pepper spray after officers were “ganged up on” by a group of thirty to forty people and that an ambulance was called immediately to treat those who had been sprayed.

Left-Green MP Rósa Björk Brynjólfsdóttir was also in attendance at the protest, however, and said she disagreed that the police response was measured and proportionate. “I have to say, I was appalled and shocked. I thought it entirely without cause, this harsh police response.” She continued that the event made her wonder if the police responded the way they did because of who particularly was protesting.

More Concern for “Lifeless Statues than Living People”

Outside of this open meeting, the asylum seekers’ recent protests—including a silent demonstration outside of Alþingi that ended with three arrests—have been the cause of much discussion in parliament, although many MPs have argued that the debates have not been focused on the important aspects of the matter. MP bickering about logistical aspects of the protests, such as whether protesters should be allowed to use the bathroom in Reykjavík Cathedral (which is located on Austurvöllur square), drew criticism from MPs from three parties, who believed discussions would be better focused on the protesters’ demands. “The right to protest doesn’t live or die with whether we like the cause,” remarked Reform Party MP Sigríður María Egilsdóttir. “The right to protest lives or dies with democracy itself.”

Sigríður’s opinions were seconded by Pirate MP Sara Elísa Þórðardóttir and Left-Green MP Kolbeinn Óttarsson Proppé, the latter of whom chided his fellow parliamentarians for showing what could be interpreted as more concern for “lifeless statues than living people,” instead of taking a position on whether asylum seekers were supposed to just sit quietly by and wait to be deported.

The issue of police treatment of demonstrators will be referred to an independent committee who will review, among other things, video footage taken on March 11. This committee will have three months to complete their review; a final report on the matter is expected in roughly four months.

Video footage of the pepper spraying incident has been widely circulated by the group Refugees in Iceland and can be seen below:

Icelandic police uses gas

This is icelandic police using gas and violence against unarmed people. It is wrong to isolate people that have one wish only – which is to integrate and find a normal life. Refugees´demands are – among other things – to have a right to work and access to healthcare – just like in other countries – so that they can contribute to the society. They also want for the remote Ásbrú camp to be taken down and their cases properly reviewed. So far, the only response is both institutional and physical violence inflicted by the state.Sema Erla Serdar, Rauði krossinn, Ekki fleiri brottvísanir, No Borders Iceland, Katrín Jakobsdóttir#giveusachance

Posted by Refugees in Iceland on Monday, March 11, 2019

 

This article has been altered to reflect that Andrými is not an activist group but a social space where several grassroots organisations come together. 

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