Focus Shifts to Special Rapporteur Receiving Evidence on Arbitrary Arrest Carried Out by Berenice, Camacho

A United Nations human rights body has sent a clear signal to judges and courts in the Dominican Republic: they must push back against prosecutors who “systematically interrupt” the right to a defense and illegally prolong preventive detentions.

In fact, increasing denunciations by defense lawyers against the Public Ministry for “judicial recklessness and unfair processes” could lead to a wider probe by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on judicial independence as a documented pattern of serious human rights abuses has emerged in the Dominican justice system.

The Special Rapporteur has a mandate from the U.N. Human Rights Council to investigate alleged violations relating to the independence and impartiality of the judiciary and the independence of the legal profession.

The numbers are alarming: over 70% of those in Dominican prisons are being held under preventive detention orders in a pre-trial status, rarely charged or formally indicted and often for longer periods than a sentence would have drawn from a trial and conviction. This has been extensively documented by Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the DR’s National Office of Public Defense (ONDP), and the U.S. Department of State. It is a widespread pattern of “deprivation of liberty imposed arbitrarily or inconsistently with the international standards set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” under the WGAD’s mandate.

The message was loud in clear in November from the U.N. Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) regarding a case of arbitrary arrest carried out by prosecutors Yeni Berenice and Wilson Camacho against former Attorney General Jean Rodríguez Sánchez, who faced allegations of improper conduct and corruption from his successor. WGAD referred extensive evidence to U.N. Special Rapporteur Margaret Satterthwaite based on their opinion that the “judicial authority” could not be considered “to be independent and impartial when it has refused to examine, discuss and answer the allegations relative to the arbitrary detention and appeals presented” in the case.

Berenice and Camacho “systematically interrupted” the rights of Rodríguez Sánchez to mount a defense while he faced a lengthy investigation under preventive imprisonment, the U.N. body concluded in its detailed legal opinion. In that case, the Public Ministry violated Articles 3, 8, 9, 10 and 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Articles 2, 9, 10 and 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Human Rights.

Pressure Builds on Judges

The WGAD referral to Special Rapporteur Satterthwaite specifically raised the evident lack of legal recourses that should be guaranteed by courts against the human rights abuses perpetrated by Berenice and Camacho. This brought into question the impartiality and independence of the judicial process, the referral noted.

Recently, the Public Ministry recused a judge hours before she was to rule on a request by Berenice and Camacho to extend a three-year long investigation past its expired statutory limit. The legal teams for former presidential chief of staff José Ramón Peralta and former Public Works minister Gonzalo Castillo said the last-minute recusal was designed to drag out an investigation where both men have faced preventive detention and obstacles to mounting a legal defense.

Prosecutors are “recurring to judicial recklessness and unfair processes with the goal of getting something they can’t obtain through means permitted by the law,” said Peralta’s legal team in a statement.

Laura Acosta, an attorney for Castillo, told reporters that the last-minute recusal by prosecutors was part of a lengthy pattern of repeatedly delaying resolution of her client’s prolonged detention. Instead of a legal extension of the investigation, it is “an extension in fact, a judicial coup d’etat,” Acosta said.

Dominican media reports state that the Public Ministry based its recusal on how the judge allowed the legal defense teams for Peralta and Castillo to review the evidence against their clients, who still have not been charged. It came after the statutory limit for filing formal charges ended in November, after which prosecutors dragged out the process of requesting an extension until December and after further delays the decision on the extension was interrupted by the recusal last Friday.

A five-judge appellate court agreed to take up the recusal petition in the high-profile case. The question arises whether that court’s actions will present another set of facts that could end up before U.N. Special Rapporteur Satterthwaite or provide one example to lessen doubts on arbitrary detentions and interruptions to the right of defense in the Dominican Republic.

Furthermore, human rights organizations could bring evidence to Ms. Satterthwaite of the thousands of lesser-known cases of prosecutors arbitrarily detaining people and applying the same “systematic interruption” to their right to defense. Unlike the high-profile cases in the news recently, those who have no resources to challenge their detention depend on aid from ONDP and other human rights entities that routinely document their cases.

This raises the stakes for judges to either limit the scope of future U.N. investigations, or widen them and bring greater scrutiny and damage to the prestige of the Dominican Republic.