The Helsinki Police Department has been accused of breaching human rights after footage was shared widely online showing officers pepper-spraying sitting Extinction Rebellion (XR) protesters.
A sit-in protest was organized by Elokapina (Extinction Rebellion Finland) on the busy Kaisaniemenkatu road in Helsinki, where numerous road traffic and tram line routes converge, on Saturday.
The climate protesters were ordered to disperse, having blocked the busy road with their sit-down demonstration all afternoon before police finally, and seemingly without provocation, unloaded with pepper spray canisters, hitting the seated protesters directly in the face as photos and videos from the scene purport to show.
“Within 10 minutes of the protest spreading out, police resorted to pepper spray and sprayed protesters several times, causing severe reactions in roughly a dozen people. Police also prevented some of the sprayed people from rinsing their face with water,” reads a press release from Elokapina.
Activists took to Twitter to share what they experienced at the hands of the police and to express their outrage at what unfolded. Many blasted the actions of the officers and called for them to face disciplinary action. “Shame on you Finland! How dare you!” one irate commenter wrote.
At least 51 protesters, some of whom had locked themselves to a boat, were detained by police according to an Extinction Rebellion press release.
In a statement, the Helsinki police department argued that given the extent of the traffic disruption and length for which the protest had been allowed to continue – roughly five hours – officers used the “most lenient forcible measure at [their disposal].”
Kimmo Nuotio, a professor of criminal law at the University of Helsinki said the situation “doesn’t look good,” from a legal perspective, adding that “use of force must be based on careful discretion and situational consideration.”
In the meantime, another street blockade is planned for Wednesday, October 7 as part of the group’s Autumn Rebellion (Syyskapina).
“Similar civil disobedience will be seen in at least 15 different countries throughout Autumn,” the group wrote on its website.
“I’m frankly annoyed that things didn’t go well in this particular case,” Sanna Heikinheimo, a deputy national police commissioner at the National Police Board said, claiming that 99 percent of demonstrations held in Helsinki pass without incident.
A report has already been submitted to the Ministry of the Interior and an investigation into the police use of force is underway.
Legal experts across Finland have expressed their concern at the use of perceived excessive force in the incident. Miikka Vuorela, a doctoral student of criminology at the University of Helsinki, claimed the officers’ actions “constituted a human rights violation.”
And I mean...it is criminal for the law enforcement police to spray a chemical on the face of some peacefully seated protesters.
Attacking women sitting on the ground with a weapon meant to be used for protection is cowardly.
There are other means of removing them if they disturb the traffic.
We declare solidarity with the activists.
Our protests, our fight against the destruction of the planet, and the exploitation of animals continue.
Governments are afraid of this and want to prevent it by any means.
But we will not be intimidated, nor will we stop and we just have to stay united!
My best regards to all, Venus