Police violence remains chronic struggle in Dominican Republic

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An argument between a shopper and a store clerk at a mall in the Dominican Republic capital of Santo Domingo ended last month with police arresting customer David de los Santos.

Three days later, the 24-year-old was dead in hospital, after suffering catastrophic injuries during his detention.

The case has highlighted chronic police violence in the Dominican Republic -- an issue that appears linked to racial and class discrimination in the country.

The official police version of the events of April 27 is that de los Santos was the victim of a nervous breakdown in his cell and that he himself caused the injuries that lead to his death.

But an autopsy revealed that he was killed, having died from a head trauma.

"If they had the courage to assassinate him, let them show the courage to respond to the Dominican people about what happened to my son," de los Santos' father Cesar Ozuna told AFP at a protest against police abuse in Santo Domingo Tuesday.

Around 100 people demonstrated in the square at the shopping center where de los Santos was arrested late last month.

Protesters wore black, lit candles and held up signs demanding justice for the deceased physical education teacher, whose family claims he was tortured by police, including even burning his testicles.

His death was the third at the hands of authorities since April 5.

Dominican President Luis Abinader promised on Twitter that "none of these cases will remain unpunished."

National police authorities suspended the officers involved at the station located in the fashionable Naco neighborhood, and opened an investigation alongside the public ministry.

"It is about events that cause indignation, pain and shame," said Attorney General Miriam German Brito, whose office has recorded 41 deaths at the hands of police since October 2021.

"There is a certain pattern of behavior that we cannot allow," she added.

- 'Color, economic situation matter' -

The Dominican Republic's National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH) has recorded more than 4,000 deaths during clashes with police or security forces between 2010 and April 2021 -- though they say many such deaths are not reported due to a lack of faith in the judicial system.

CNDH president Manuel Maria Mercedes insists that "color and economic position have a huge influence" on whether someone is likely to suffer police violence in a country where almost a quarter of the population is poor.

"The fact that you come from a poor family, with scarce economic resources, is sufficient to determine the treatment you are given in this type of situation," Mercedes told AFP.

"If David had been the son of a wealthy person... his family would not be crying now."

In October, Abinader made moves to address policing culture in the country when he sacked the director of the national police force and ordered a reform of the institution.

The firing came after the killings of a pair of Evangelical pastors who were shot more than 20 times due to police "confusion" in March 2021, and the death of Leslie Rosado on October 2, who was chased by a police officer she allegedly struck with her car.

Just two weeks before de los Santos's death, another man, Jose Gregorio Custodio, died at the hands of security personnel in the southern town of San Jose de Ocoa.

A video shared by national media showed the moment police officers removed the 38-year-old prisoner from a health center, where police say he had been taken for medical attention.

The footage shows police throwing him onto the pavement and then kicking him repeatedly.

The police said he died on returning to his cell after a stint in hospital due to health problems.

Custodio's family accused them of torturing their son.

The colonel in charge of the police station was sacked during the investigation.

However, national police chief Claudio Peguero insisted on Wednesday that "there was no excess" force used in either case.

"No member (of the police) physically assaulted or physically hit either of these two people," he said.

In another case, 30-year-old Richard Baez died of blunt head trauma in a hospital on April 5 after he had been detained in the northern city of Santiago.

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