By the end of August 2020, more than 25.5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 had been registered, with more than 850 000 confirmed deaths documented worldwide. The United States, Brazil, Mexico and the United Kingdom remained among the worst-hit countries in the world in terms of total confirmed deaths, but in the week that former president Pranab Mukherjee passed away following a COVID-19 diagnosis a few weeks earlier, India registered the world’s highest single-day increase in cases of COVID-19, with a total of 78 761 new cases on the final Sunday in August. Indeed, by 6 September, India had overtaken Brazil in terms of confirmed COVID-19 cases, moving into second place globally. Despite seemingly having had the virus somewhat under control, a number of European countries, including Spain, France, Germany and the UK, began to witness a surge in new cases.

Against the backdrop of the pandemic, the US has also witnessed widespread protests against police brutality (prompted by the killing of George Floyd in late May), driven by Black Lives Matter, a grassroots movement advocating racial equality. But the US is not the only country where citizens are battling against violence at the hands of law-enforcement agencies – in many states across the world, governments are using the pandemic as a cover for increased disproportionate use of force, repression and censorship.

This month’s #CovidCrimeWatch newsletter focuses on the continued (and in some cases increasing) use of government violence against civilians and the increasing tendency of authoritarian regimes to silence opposition. Alongside August’s newsletter, the GI-TOC has published a policy brief, ‘Reforming the Response Paradigm,’ on the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as a blog on violence in Brazil. There is also a special edition of the GI-TOC’s podcast series, ‘The Impact: Coronavirus and Organized Crime,’ focusing on how COVID-19 has impacted and shaped security and organized crime in Brazil.

Finally, the GI-TOC has also published a blog exploring the impact of the pandemic on market for counterfeit goods and the ways in which new technologies can safeguard supply chains in the long term.

Police crack down

In our eleventh #CovidCrimeWatch newsletter, we reported on the numerous instances of violence perpetrated by law-enforcement agencies in Uganda, Nigeria, Honduras and France under the guise of enforcing coronavirus-related restrictions. Fast-forward three months and there is little sign that police violence has subsided. On 21 August, Kenyan police launched tear gas at demonstrators who were protesting government corruption in the procurement of COVID-19 medical equipment. However, police officers in the East African state have not limited themselves to tear gas; at least 17 people have been killed by police while enforcing the country’s pandemic-related regulations, according to Missing Voices KE, including 13-year-old Yasin Moyo, who was shot by police in March 2020 as he stood on a balcony.

In India, police enforcement of lockdown measures has also resulted in deaths, such as the case of a father and son who were beaten and killed while in police custody. The father had been arrested in June 2020 for having kept his phone shop open after curfew. Police brutality has been a regular occurrence in India throughout the pandemic, with reports of violence – including the use of lathis (a type of baton) – emerging as early as March. In response to a petition over the issue of police violence, the chief justice of Bombay High Court defended police violence, arguing that ‘police brutality is only one side of the coin’ and that there are many ‘black sheep everywhere’ who are failing to comply with coronavirus regulations.

As explored in the GI-TOC’s special podcast episode, police violence in Brazil is nothing new, especially in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. The pandemic appears to have done nothing to stem the brutality. Against a backdrop of falling crime rates in Brazil during the pandemic, police killings in the first four months of 2020 increased in the states of Rio de Janeiro and São Paolo (by no less than 30% in the latter compared to the same period the previous year). However, following the killing of 14-year-old João Pedro Mattos Pinto in a Rio favela by police on 18 May, Brazil’s Supreme Court took the decision to ban police raids in the favelas during the coronavirus pandemic, a measure that was upheld by the Federal Supreme Court at the beginning of August. Since the ban was imposed, police raids (and by extension police killings) have declined dramatically.

States aim to silence

While the global increase in state targeting of civilians during lockdown is undoubtedly a concerning development, the increased authoritarian tendencies of governments around the world is perhaps just as worrying. Journalists and activists have borne the brunt of state repression, with a number of members of the press and civil-society organizations having been arrested (and in many cases convicted) on trumped-up charges.

Since February 2019, millions of Algerians have taken to the streets every week to protest against the political system, in what is known as the ‘Hirak’ movement. The grassroots uprising, nicknamed the ‘revolution of smiles’ thanks to its overwhelmingly peaceful nature, was initially remarkably successful, forcing the resignation of long-time authoritarian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika. However, the outbreak of the coronavirus in March 2020 brought the protests to an abrupt halt. Since then, the new government of Abdelmadjid Tebboune has exploited the global emergency to step up its repression of popular dissent, with several journalists and activists convicted under new laws introduced in April that criminalize the spread of purported ‘false news’. One of the most prominent cases – which has garnered worldwide attention – is the arrest of journalist Khaled Drareni, who was handed a three-year prison sentence in August for ‘inciting an unarmed gathering’ and ‘endangering national unity’.

On the other side of the African continent, investigative journalist Hopewell Chin’ono and activist and opposition politician Jacob Ngarivhume were arrested in Harare in July, accused of inciting violence by organizing an anti-corruption protest in the Zimbabwean capital, planned for 31 July. (The protest was foiled by the country’s military and police force.) Chin’ono, who is thought to have recently contracted COVID-19, had carried out an investigation exposing government corruption over the US$60 million purchase of protective equipment, which led to the sacking of the government’s health minister (who was subsequently charged with corruption). Both Chin’ono and Ngarivhume were released on bail at the beginning of September after spending six weeks in pre-trial detention.

The introduction of new legislation criminalizing the spread of fake news amid the pandemic has been replicated in a number of countries around the world. In South East Asia, there has been a growing trend since the beginning of the outbreak of governments using the health crisis to clamp down on free speech and press freedom. In March, the Thai government introduced a raft of new regulations aimed at combating the pandemic, including a provision that prohibits the sharing of news that is ‘false or may instigate fear among the people,’ and a ban on public gatherings, which has been used to initiate criminal proceedings against at least 25 individuals for participating in protests.

In the Philippines, a new anti-terrorism law passed in June under the guise of national security amid the pandemic is a severe threat to press freedom. Given the history of politically motivated convictions of journalists – such as that of journalist Maria Ressa (arrested in February 2019 for ‘cyber libel’) – it is not unreasonable to assume that such arrests will only increase in the wake of the new legislation. Similar laws have been used to arrest critics in Indonesia and in Vietnam, while in Cambodia, more than 40 people had been arrested as of April for incitement to cause chaos and spreading coronavirus-related fake news.

Legitimacy, impunity and scrunity

The links between police violence, creeping authoritarianism and criminality are complex, but understanding them is crucial for the fight against organized crime. At the most basic level, the first issue is simply that of resource allocation. If law-enforcement bodies are focused on policing national lockdowns, they may risk neglecting criminal groups operating in the shadows. Throughout our #CovidCrimeWatch series, we have continually documented the ways in which organized-crime actors have exploited the pandemic and its associated restrictions to strengthen their grip on illicit economies, and a distracted police force will only make their job easier.

But what of the impact of increasing police violence against civilians? From the very beginning of the pandemic, criminal groups have been positioning themselves as providers of public services and enforcers of the law. One of the fundamental tenets of criminal governance is the challenge to the traditional notion of the state’s monopoly on violence. When violence against civilians is instead practised by law-enforcement bodies, criminal groups are increasingly able to portray themselves as ‘protectors’ of the communities they seek to control, thus increasing their legitimacy in the eyes of citizens. And this increase in legitimacy can only ever come at the expense of the state, with far-reaching consequences for the state’s ability to effectively target and respond to organized crime.

Finally, the increasing censorship of journalists and repression of activists witnessed over the past months have grim ramifications for the ability of civil society to act as a check on government power and abuse thereof. As argued in the GI-TOC’s latest policy brief, ‘illicit markets thrive in silence and in an environment of intimidation’. In this regard, journalists and other civil-society actors are critical in the fight against organized-crime activity, perpetrated by non-state and state actors alike. So, when governments and police seek to clamp down on press freedom, what they are really doing is undermining the role of civilian oversight of criminal behaviour. Which in many cases was the objective all along.

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The #CovidCrimeWatch archive of news articles from around the world relating to organized crime and the COVID-19 pandemic has been updated. Please click below to download the repository, which now hosts 635 articles.

#CovidCrimeWatch is curated by Lyes Tagziria.

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