Riot control guns raise concern in Spain

A close-up look at how the Spanish riot weapons compare

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Questions are being asked about the safety of police riot control weapons being used in Spain, an issue with implications for other EU states where street protests against austerity have turned violent in recent years.

Ester Quintana, 42, went to protest peacefully at a demonstration in Barcelona on 14 November.

Hours later she lay bleeding in the street.

Something, suddenly, had struck her in the face.

She is now blind in her left eye.

What hit Ms Quintana is the subject of a legal investigation.

The police in Barcelona insist they did not use rifles to fire rubber balls at protesters that night.

However they say that 40mm plastic rounds were fired from another weapon used by police in Catalonia, as demonstrations turned violent.

Ester Quintana who was blinded by a suspected police projectile at a demonstration in Barcelona
'Never imagined it'

Ms Quintana insists there was "no trouble" on the street when she was hit.

"I never imagined this would happen to me because I have never been in a position where the police might shoot," she says.

The Catalan government has said that it will review the type of weapons used by the police during demonstrations.

Ms Quintana's lawyer, Laia Serra, says there have been seven cases in Catalonia alone in the past three years when people lost an eye after being hit by projectiles fired by the police.

"None of the victims has received any type of compensation and no-one has taken responsibility or been prosecuted," she says.

Because Ms Quintana was hit at a demonstration, Mrs Serra believes many people in Spain identify with her client's case.

"It raises wider questions about the actions of the police," she says.

Policy change

Rubber ball or plastic round?

Plastic round launcher to be used in the Basque Country
  • Rubber balls are fired from rifles towards the ground, bouncing back up towards the target
  • Plastic rounds are fired from a launcher directly at the target and appear to be more accurate
  • Plastic rounds are softer than rubber balls
  • A launcher costs 1,700 euros, including extras, whereas a rifle costs 1,000 euros

source: Catalan police

In the Basque Country in northern Spain, police will use a different type of weapon in the new year, following the death of a 28-year-old man in April.

The football fan was hit by a rubber ball fired by police in the city of Bilbao.

From January, Ertzaintza, the Basque police force, will stop using such rifles, which are adapted to fire the rubber balls at a speed of 100m per second.

Elena Moreno, the head of the police academy on the outskirts of the Basque capital of Vitoria, says the decision was taken as a "matter of importance".

It was not, she adds, a decision "reached overnight".

Riot police in the Basque Country will now use a weapon type proving increasingly popular for police forces elsewhere in the world.

It is a lightweight, gun-shaped launcher which fires 40mm plastic rounds.

Whereas the rubber balls are fired towards the ground, with the ball then bouncing up towards its intended target, police in the Basque Country and other regions of Spain can fire the plastic rounds from the launcher directly at rioters.

"What's more important than the weapon itself is the protocol over how and when it is used," said Ms Moreno.

"The training we give officers who use the weapons is also very important."

'Safe and efficient'

Despite the fact that the rubber balls are being phased out in the Basque Country, riot police in the rest of Spain will still have the weapon at their disposal.

Basque police train with the new plastic round launchers Basque police are seen here training with the new plastic round launchers

Spain's Secretary of State for Security, Ignacio Ulloa, admits the weapon is "risky" but insists officers are well trained.

He also points out that there is a strict protocol that the police follow, before using the weapon.

"I am quite convinced that, when fired at a safe distance, it is a very safe and efficient weapon," he says.

Police in Britain have been using a baton gun since 2002. However, according to the Association of Chief Police Officers, the weapon is very different to the launcher used in Spain.

The baton gun, which also uses plastic rounds, was used this month in Carrickfergus. The Police Service of Northern Ireland says the weapon is only used in situations of "serious public disorder".

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