Same Police Mistakes, Fans Die – NBC Boston

The police fire tear gas at a crowd of football fans who rush to the exits in panic. There are so many escape attempts and some of the gates are locked. The stadium becomes a death trap.

People are trampled on in despair. Others suffocate, crushed by the weight of the bodies around them.

It is the details of last weekend’s soccer match in Malang, Indonesia, where 131 people, some of them children, died in a scrum after police fired tear gas at fans of home team Arema FC. It is also the story of the 1964 Estadio Nacional disaster in Lima, Peru, when 328 people died in a tear gas-induced panic. It was the same in Accra, Ghana, in 2001, when 126 people died.

Football’s three worst stadium tragedies occurred over a 60-year period, but are so strikingly similar that it’s clear no lessons have been learned.

The world’s most popular game has historical problems with hooliganism, and Indonesia has had its share of team rivalries that have led to violence. But Arema had the only fans in the stadium. Just her and the police.

“Not a single rival supporter. How can this match kill more than 100 people?” said a sobbing Gilang Widya Pramana, President of Arema.

The blame lies with the police, as in Lima, Accra and elsewhere.

Some Arema supporters stormed onto the field, angry at their team’s loss. But major football tragedies have almost always been caused by brutal police overreaction and poor stadium security, experts say. The firing of tear gas in closed stadiums is widely condemned by security experts. Locking exits is against all safety regulations.

“In fact, it’s incredibly rare for fans to kill other fans,” said Prof Geoff Pearson of the University of Manchester, an expert on football supporter surveillance. “If we look at pretty much all major (football) tragedies I can’t think of an exception, all of which were caused by unsafe stadiums or practices or improper policing.”

Indonesia, a country of 273 million people, is set to host the U20 World Cup next year. It’s football’s “sleeping giant,” said James Montague, a journalist and author who has traveled there to watch matches with fans.

Montague discovered a passion for football that rivals, if not surpasses, the game’s leading countries. He said he also found “largely run-down” stadiums, corruption and mismanagement everywhere, and the kind of police who “would hit me in the face with a baton just for standing there watching a football game”.

Football was thought to have reached a turning point 33 years ago with the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, in which 97 Liverpool fans died as a result of a crowd at a stadium in Sheffield, England. It was eventually determined that the police were to blame for letting fans into an already overcrowded department, but it took 27 years for the police’s lies and cover-ups – which blamed drunken fans for the deaths – to be fully exposed.

Police have fired tear gas to stop brawls at a soccer game in Indonesia, which police say led to a stampede that killed at least 129 people.

Hillsborough introduced far-reaching reforms to English football, made stadiums safer and called for a change of police force.

That resonates in Indonesia this week. So call for justice. Indonesian authorities have charged six people with the crush, three of them police officers.

But a lack of ultimate accountability — “the state is closing ranks,” Montague said — was also a recurring trait.

A BBC report marking the 50th anniversary of the Lima disaster found that just one police officer had been sentenced to 30 months in prison for the deadliest football stadium tragedy. More than 30 years after Hillsborough, an officer was convicted and fined for a security offense. Police were acquitted after Africa’s worst sporting disaster in Accra, although an investigation had blamed them for the reckless firing of tear gas and rubber bullets.

The football authorities are helpless. FIFA, the governing body of world football based in Switzerland, has recommendations that tear gas should never be used in stadiums. But football governing bodies cannot dictate the tactics of a country’s security forces, even at a football match.

“It’s all because of the police’s organized culture,” said Ronan Evain, chief executive of Football Supporters Europe, a group that represents fans’ interests.

Football’s inability to meddle in internal security matters is underscored by the situation in Egypt, where a 2012 stadium riot killed 74 people while security forces cracked down on fans for a decade. Dozens of supporters have been killed in clashes with police at and outside matches, and some supporters’ groups have been declared terrorist organizations for criticizing the Egyptian government, which has been widely accused of human rights abuses.

The African Football Association is even based in Cairo, but has no power to intervene.

It’s the police, Pearson said, who “must be willing to admit their mistakes and learn from their mistakes.” But this kind of institutional change is reluctant.

Hillsborough brought effective reform to England, but it stands almost alone. Education was lost after Lima and Accra, and the same can happen again after Indonesia.

Just days after last weekend’s tragedy, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at football fans outside a stadium in Argentina, and one person died in the chaos.

George Lawson was working at the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation when he rushed to the unfolding tragedy at Accra’s Ohene Djan Stadium 21 years ago. He recalled being stunned by the sight of dozens of bodies lying on the ground. He reminded that his country had come to a standstill.

But while an investigation called for the stadium to be completely modernized, the only lasting change was a bronze statue placed outside as a memorial with the inscription: “I am my brother’s keeper.”

“When things like this happen, there’s a lot of chaos,” Lawson said. “And after a while, people forget about it.”

About Cindy Johnson

Check Also

Armistice Day November 11 and Memorial Sunday November 13, 2022

Armistice Day The Mayor, Councilor Godfrey Bland, will meet with representatives of the Royal British …