Activists and NGOs take the lead with international bodies while the government
denies, downplays and launches attacks

The outcry over human rights abuses in the Dominican Republic has intensified thanks to the leadership of local civil society groups and international organizations, while the Dominican government remains in full denial.

This week, the head of the influential Dominican non-profit, Institutionality and Justice Foundation (Finjus), called for a national meeting to “rescue and humanize” the justice system with public policies that address its grave human rights abuses. This followed a heated confrontation last week in Washington, D.C., before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) where the government was confronted with evidence from the National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH-DR), a leading Dominican civil society organization, that preventive detention is used to jail people without due process and prisons are overcrowded by more than 200%.

Pretrial detention is not being addressed here!” said Manuel María Mercedes, president of the CNDH-DR at the IACHR hearing his group convened last week. Mercedes called on the government to admit to “shared blame” and take action to remedy the “inhuman” conditions faced by detainees.

Meanwhile, the National Office of Public Defense (ONDP), a Dominican legal aid society, met with officials from the U.S. Embassy and the Pan American Development Organization (PADF), an NGO formed by the Organization of American States (OAS), to promote sentencing guidelines that would address delays and outright denial of legal rights. ONDP published an extensive report in 2023 that found over 70% of those in the DR’s prisons are held under preventive detention orders without charges or due process.

Yet, throughout all of this, the Dominican government has repeatedly denied the problem, downplayed the evidence, and even attacked international bodies that have condemned the human rights abuses in the system.

  • Both ONDP and CNDH-DR have published extensive reports documenting how the vast majority of those in Dominican prisons – from 70% to over 80% – are held in overcrowded cells under preventive detention for extended periods in violation of international human rights agreements. Roberta Clarke, an IACHR delegate from Barbados, said last week she was “amazed” that nothing has changed since the international human rights organization found the same conditions on a visit to the DR in 1999. Director General of Prisons Roberto Hernández Basilio, however, has claimed these statistics are “extreme exaggerations” and falsely insisted the Dominican Republic has “a less unfavorable preventive detention rate than that of the United States.”
  • In November, United Nations Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) issued a legal opinion concluding that the Public Ministry has practiced arbitrary arrest. It singled out prosecutor Yeni Berenice of the Special Prosecutor’s Office for the Prosecution of Administrative Corruption (PEPCA), who “orchestrated” a “public discredit campaign” and “systematically interrupted” the right to a defense in the case of former Attorney General Jean Alain Rodriguez Sanchez. In response, the government made Berenice a spokesperson in attacking the UN body’s integrity and denying its conclusions.
  • Judges who don’t comply with Public Ministry efforts to obstruct due process are saying they’re being intimidated. Last month, Judge Ana Lee Florimón said she and her family are being followed since Berenice tried to remove her from supervising a now four-year investigation that used lengthy preventive detention orders and still has not produced formal charges. This caused outrage in the country and led Attorney General Miriam German Brito to issue a statement distancing herself from Berenice and pledging an investigation.

With a growing consensus among legal experts and human rights advocates at home and abroad, the pressure to take action to address human rights abuses in the Dominican justice system will only increase. Systematic denial of due process and fair trials for detainees is a central factor in the human rights crisis in Dominican prisons, as thoroughly documented by civil society groups and international bodies.

Attempts by the Public Ministry to engineer a process that ignores the role of prosecutors in the preventive detention crisis must not be tolerated. The Dominican government must stop its campaign of denial and spin, end the intimidation of critics, and own up to the problem it must take immediate action to solve. The consequences to the nation and the legal peril for officials directly culpable in these human rights violations are grave if the crisis continues.