Government spin on human rights abuses provokes anger before Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

Conflict broke out yesterday between human rights advocates and representatives of the government of the Dominican Republic as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) reviewed proof of the “inhuman” treatment and conditions in the country’s justice system at a public hearing in Washington, D.C.

The Dominican government delegation, led by Director General of Prisons Roberto Hernández Basilio, responded with disinformation on preventive detention and prison conditions, and cited an alleged reform proposal that has not been made public. These actions provoked rising anger in the meeting of the human rights monitor for the Organization of American States, which culminated in shouting.

Pretrial detention is not being addressed here!” said Manuel María Mercedes, president of the Dominican National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH-DR), a leading civil society organization. “Believe the reality that out of every 100 pretrial detainees you put in there,70% are unjust! And that is unacceptable,” Mercedes added, pointing at Hernández as he insisted there is “shared blame” within the justice system.

Civil society advocates accused the government of “constant human rights violations”, summarized by Juan Miguel Rondón, civil and political affairs director for CNDH-DR, as “corruption, torture, overcrowding, preventive measures turned into anticipated sentences” and overseeing a prison system that is “a cemetery for the living” while having “no political interest” in reforms.

Extensive evidence of human rights abuses was shown to the international panel by CNDH-DR, including photographs of cells for five crowded with 30 prisoners. The average overcrowding is over 200% for the system, with the La Victoria prison facility at 300%, the group disclosed in its latest report. Rondón reported cases of widespread abuse and torture by security officials that face no repercussions or oversight, along with malnutrition and denial of basic medical care.

Dominican Government Disinformation

Hernández, who claimed last September the Dominican Republic has “a less unfavorable preventive detention rate than that of the United States,” came to the hearing prepared to downplay the severity of the human rights abuses before the international monitors. His team was forced to admit that the vast majority of those held in Dominican prisons are under preventive detention orders, confirming grave violations of the American Charter on Human Rights which could land the Dominican Republic and its officials before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

But Hernández put government spin on those facts, insisting the figure was 60% rather than the 80% documented by CNDH-DR, which he said were “extreme exaggerations”. Hernández also played down the shocking evidence of inhuman prison conditions by showing an expensively produced government video portraying spacious living quarters, recreation centers, bathrooms, and modern health facilities for all prisoners in new prison facilities.

The director general of Dominican prisons repeatedly waved a booklet at the hearing which he claimed was a government proposal for prison reforms. Mercedes and others complained before the IACHR panel that the alleged reform proposal has not been made public.

International Legal Peril Increasing

Roberta Clarke, a delegate from Barbados on the IACHR examination panel, observed that the evidence reported by Dominican civil society at the hearing recalls a 1999 report following an IACHR country visit which revealed 70% of Dominican prisoners were under preventive detention orders in denial of due process and similar overcrowding conditions violated their human rights. Clarke’s comments confirmed that there are no improvements in today’s Dominican justice system, a fact she said left her “amazed”.

Clarke’s observation could put the Dominican Republic and its officials in potentially serious legal jeopardy. Denial of due process, a fair trial and humane treatment while depriving people of their liberty are prohibited by multiple sections of Articles 5,7 and 8 of the American Convention on Human Rights.

The IACHR has a mandate to examine reports of such violations by member states like the Dominican Republic, and bring cases before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Dominican officials responsible for these human rights violations could face legal consequences should cases be brought before the regional international court.

United Nations Has Condemned Top Public Ministry Officials

This week’s public hearing follows a legal opinion made public in November by the United Nations Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD), which condemned the Abinader government for practicing arbitrary arrest.

The WGAD concluded that prosecutors Yeni Berenice and Wilson Camacho of the Special Prosecutor’s Office for the Prosecution of Administrative Corruption (PEPCA), “orchestrated” a “public discredit campaign” and “systematically interrupted” the right to a defense to former Attorney General Jean Alain Rodriguez Sanchez.

The Dominican Justice Initiative sent a letter to the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (U.N.) Linda Thomas-Greenfield urging the Biden Administration follow through on the U.N.’s condemnation the actions of the Dominican government. The letter states, “according to public records and reports in the Dominican Republic’s media, Ms. Berenice Reynoso has carried out identical or similar actions detailed in the WGAD decision against in dozens of other individuals in other cases.”

Wrongful Detention of U.S. Nationals by Abinader Government

Despite calls from Congressional leaders to determine how many Americans are being wrongfully detained by the Dominican government and to investigate DOJ funding of programs that are unlawfully detaining Americans, the Biden Administration’s “double standard” persists, and a blind eye is turned to the Dominican Republic.

In a recent letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul raised deep concerns around the fact that the Americans – both citizens and legal permanent residents – have been caught up in the preventive detention crisis. Chairman McCaul expressed alarm that the State Department “does not have a complete accounting of the number of Americans that are currently imprisoned in the country.”

Chairman McCaul’s concerns were echoed by U.S. Representative Troy Nehls in a letter to the Inspector General of the Department of Justice, questioning whether U.S. tax dollars were being used to wrongfully detain U.S. nationals in the Dominican Republic. Representative Nehls was rightly concerned that taxpayer funds are “being used to unreasonably deny the due process rights of American citizens and legal residents living outside the U.S.”