The whitewashing of the Dominican Republic’s human rights abuses is now collapsing. Last Thursday, following the tragic fire at the La Victoria National Penitentiary which killed at least 13, Deputy Eugenio Cedeño of the Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM) of President Luis Abinader joined the rising chorus of voices demanding that administration of the prison system be taken away from the scandal-plagued Public Ministry.

The Public Ministry has shown great irresponsibility, insensitivity and lack of management in that regard. These events haven’t only been happening now,” Cedeño said.

Indeed, civil society organizations and international human rights bodies have been warning about rampant human rights violations in the justice system of the Dominican Republic for months. The Abinader government had only responded with denials and downplaying of the evidence rather than accept any responsibility.

The tragedy at La Victoria is making it much more difficult to continue to deny the ongoing abuses.

  • On February 29 – three weeks before the La Victoria fire – civil society groups led by the Dominican National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH-DR) confronted the Dominican government before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IAHRC) in Washington, D.C., with evidence of “inhuman” conditions of overcrowding in the prison system. The Dominican government responded with disinformation and claimed that the evidence represented “extreme exaggerations”.
  • The National Office of Public Defense, a Dominican legal aid organization, has joined the CNDH-DR in linking prison overcrowding to the Public Ministry’s routine use of preventive detention in up to 80% of all prisoner cases in violation of Dominican law. In short, prosecutors arrest people under preventive detention orders and deny due process, often imprisoning individuals without trial for periods longer than the maximum sentence for their alleged offense. Many never see the inside of a courtroom. These practices violate multiple articles of the American Charter on Human Rights and could bring serious legal consequences for the Dominican Republic before international tribunals. No intervention has taken place by Attorney General Miriam German Brito or any official of the Abinader government to put an end to these practices.
  • In November 2023, the U.N. Human Rights Commission Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) condemned the Abinader government for violating multiple provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Human Rights which prohibit arbitrary arrest. 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 Abinader government responded by calling the U.N. body’s legal opinion “blackmail”.
  • The U.S. State Department’s 2022 Country Report on Human Rights Practices for the Dominican Republic documented “credible reports” of “unlawful or arbitrary killings by government security forces; cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by police and other government agents; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions” as well as “arbitrary detention and arbitrary interference with privacy.”
  • Furthermore, the U.S. government has not made public how many U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents (LPRs) have been arbitrarily arrested or are currently held under illegal preventive detention orders in the Dominican Republic. No response was released after a written inquiry was sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken in August 2023 requesting this information. Nor has the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo announced whether U.S. citizens or LPRs were injured or killed in the La Victoria fire last week.

Recent filings in Washington, D.C., indicate the Abinader government has hired the former Human Rights Watch director for the Americas, José Miguel Vivanco, for “reputational risk management” related to the Dominican Republic’s human rights image.

The contract, which was disclosed under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, indicates the Foreign Ministry is paying Vivanco US$1.4 million for his advisory services.

Given the insurmountable evidence of serious human rights abuses and the increasing scrutiny from international human rights monitors, it is time that the Abinader government to stop denying and downplaying the crises in preventive detention and prison overcrowding and accept responsibility for ending them immediately. Hopefully this is the advice that Mr. Vivanco is giving to the Abinader government after tragedies and international condemnation continues to mount.

In the meantime, it would be entirely justified for the U.S. Congress to question whether American taxpayer dollars should fund the Public Ministry of the Dominican Republic through the U.S. Department of State Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL), U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and all other cooperative agreement programs until these human rights abuses are stopped.