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On anniversary of protests, Chileans brace for fresh demonstrations and violence

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - The one-year anniversary of the protests and riots that rocked Chile in 2019, leaving more than 30 dead, brings mixed emotions to demonstrator Diego Leppez, who lost his eye when a tear gas bomb exploded by his side.

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The protests, he says, were necessary. But he regrets the violence and death.

The widespread demonstrations, which began last Oct. 18, saw Chileans take to the streets to protest inequality, inadequate pensions and the country’s deeply criticized health care and education systems. They quickly boiled over into violence that wrought billions of dollars in damage to public infrastructure and private businesses.

“This date floods me with emotions,” Leppez said, recalling the deaths of some of his fellow protesters. “Anger, resentment, joy.”

Small-scale protests and isolated incidents of violence resurfaced again this week in Chile, as the capital’s 6 million citizens emerge from months of confinement following the coronavirus pandemic.

On Friday, small groups of protesters had begun to gather at Plaza Italia, the city’s central square, ahead of the Sunday anniversary. Police, too, were patrolling the area, and had erected barricades around key city buildings.

Human rights groups are also vigilant. Thousands of protesters were injured last year in clashes with police, according to Chile’s National Institute of Human Rights.

Those incidents prompted a groundswell of allegations of abuse against the country’s security forces by global and national rights groups. The Chilean agency said it had filed 2,520 complaints in the first five months of the protests alone.

Amnesty International this week called on Chile to investigate the highest ranks of its embattled police force in connection with alleged humans rights abuses during the demonstrations.

Officials in the administration of center-right President Sebastian Pinera have denied that police condoned the excessive use of force, and have repeatedly said that individual cases of abuse would be properly investigated and prosecuted.

Lucía Dammert, a political analyst with the University of Santiago, said an uneasy peace had taken hold amid the coronavirus outbreak, but warned that could change quickly as the protest anniversary approaches.

“That [peace] can be broken by any isolated event or action from either side,” she said.

Reporting by Reuters TV; Writing by Dave Sherwood and Fabian Cambero; Editing by Daniel Wallis

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