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Police to look into who gave order to pepper spray Helsinki protesters

Some of the Extinction Rebellion demonstrators say they are considering filing a criminal complaint over the incident.

Elokapinan mielenosoitus Helsingin Kaisaniemessä
Police decided to physically remove some protesters from the scene on Saturday. Image: Pekka Tynell / Yle

The Helsinki police department has said that it will begin an inquiry into who gave the order to use pepper spray to disperse climate protesters at a demonstration on Saturday afternoon.

According to detective chief inspector Jonna Turunen of Helsinki police, the matter will be investigated early next week.

"This was a police-led field operation where a decision was made in accordance with normal structures. Efforts were made to resolve the situation as police always do, in other words, through negotiation, advice, recommendations and orders," Turunen responded when asked who made the decision to use pepper spray to disperse Extinction Rebellion climate activists.

Yle asked Turunen whether or not individual police officers have the authority to use pepper spray if their orders are disobeyed.

"There were many police officers on site and the assignment lasted several hours so there were several patrols. And then according to normal police management systems, the decisions were made in a managed field situation," she added.

"And this is also a matter that we would normally go through as part of the normal supervisory process: what happened and how people acted there and that will be assessed early next week," Turunen added.

Police said in a statement on Saturday that officers decided to break demonstrators’ resistance due to the "significant traffic disruption" and failure to abide by police orders.

The statement also indicated that the protest lasted several hours from 1pm to 7pm and that police had several other calls to respond to elsewhere in the city.

"This can also happen in Finland"

One of the protesters, doctoral student Tuulia Reponen, said she is active in the Extinction Rebellion movement.

She described how she had been sitting in Kaisaniemenkatu in downtown Helsinki with two friends, all facing a banner.

"Police first threatened [us] and said if we didn’t move, 'we will use pepper spray on you and it will really hurt'," she recounted.

Reponen described her reaction to the situation as one of disbelief.

"Finland is a democratic country where human rights are highly regarded. Peaceful demonstrators are not pepper sprayed here. When my skin started to burn I realised that this can also happen in Finland," she said.

The PhD student said that she was sprayed on her hand and neck. "It didn’t get into my eyes so I felt reasonably [ok]. My hand burned until night and I couldn’t sleep," she added.

She claimed that as far as she knew some of the protesters who were hit with pepper spray were minors. Police also dispersed the demonstrators by carrying some of them to the sidewalk.

"They apparently hoped that we would leave. However civil disobedience lies at the heart of Extinction Rebellion’s activism. Some who had been at Unioninkatu remained on the sidewalk. Others returned to the street and I think that frustrated the police," Reponen speculated.

Activists consider action against police

Police said that they detained 51 people on Saturday. Reponen was among them. Helsinki police department’s Turunen said that a likely charge for protesters who were held would be resisting police officers.

All of the detainees were released on Saturday night, however. Reponen said that she was set free around 9.30pm.

"I am suspected of resisting police officers. It was expected. I’ve been summoned to Pasila [police station] for questioning on Monday."

Extinction Rebellion activists are now considering whether or not to file a criminal complaint against the officers involved in Saturday’s incident for what they see as excessive action.

"We are a horizontal movement, so it’s difficult to say when this will go forward. I think fairly soon. We have contacts with lawyers," Reponen said.

"I believe that the use of force was excessive," she added.

The climate activist said that the demonstration aimed to inspire government action.

"I hope that Sanna Marin declares a climate emergency. The government needs to show that it is taking the climate crisis as seriously as the coronavirus crisis," she declared.

Listen to climate strikers discuss their goals on the All Points North podcast. You can listen via the embedded player here, Yle Areena, Spotify, Apple Podcasts or your usual podcast player using the RSS feed. Be sure to subscribe to the show wherever you get your podcasts and sign up for the APN newsletter.

Audio: Yle News

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