Today, the Dominican Justice Initiative (Iniciativa Dominicana de Justicia/IDJ) launches to bring critical and urgent awareness to a desperate situation in the Dominican Republic (DR). Approximately 70 percent of those in prison in the DR are serving under a preventive detention status, often held for months without any formal charges or indictment.

Deprivation of liberty is a serious measure that should only be taken in extreme circumstances. The preventive detention crisis in the DR violates the Organization of American States’ (OAS) American Convention on Human Rights, the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The IDJ’s mission is to raise awareness so we can put an end to the excessive use of preventive imprisonment in the Dominican Republic. Through education, awareness-raising, and policy advocacy, we aim to promote a transparent and fair justice system in the DR and bring accountability to violations of international standards of criminal justice.

Rule of Law, a Bedrock of International Democratic Norms, is Crumbling in the DR

The strength of global democracy rests on norms like a fair trial, the assumption of innocence, and impartial judgement. Under authoritarian regimes, these practices are among the first to disappear. In the Dominican Republic, all these symptoms point to the sickness of autocracy that is spreading like a cancer through the criminal justice system.

The Organization of American States is one of many international bodies that upholds democratic norms like due process, the rule of law, and strong independent judiciaries within the Western Hemisphere. OAS is clear, “without a fair and impartial justice system, no state can deem itself to be truly free and democratic.”

In a 2021 report, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) stated that a “priority objective” for all UN Member States is that “pretrial detention and imprisonment are restricted to measures of last resort.” Additionally, the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, also known as the “Nelson Mandela Rules,” strongly recommends “alternatives to pretrial detention” as a means to “promote increased access to justice and legal defense mechanisms.”

Since 1975, the UN Commission on Human Rights has worked with governments around the world to improve international protection of human rights. Within the Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR), the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention is entrusted to investigate all cases involving deprivation of liberty imposed arbitrarily. This working group has routinely found that “It should not be the general practice to subject defendants to pretrial detention” as it may “jeopardize the presumption of innocence” under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The statistics in the Dominican Republic point to willful disregard of global norms and rules, including those of the OAS. In April 2023, the Dominican legal aid agency National Office of Public Defense (ONDP) released a report which showed that up to 70% of all detainees in the Dominican Republic are currently behind bars on an order of preventive prison. The OAS IACHR noted in an extensive 1999 report the number of prisoners held under preventive detention was also 70%. In 2005, the Washington Post reported that “most of those held in preventive detention never see a courtroom.”

Nothing has changed in almost 25 years since the OAS first issued their report. The DR’s practice of preventive detention is an abuse of human rights that violates every international criminal justice standard. 

Dominican Justice Initiative Principles

The DR’s preventive detention crisis is well above the 31 percent of the global prison population that are currently serving under a pretrial detention status. According to Nelson Mandela, “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

The IDJ will raise awareness on the humanitarian crisis in the Dominican Republic through education, advocacy, and other awareness efforts. Our principles are the following:

  1. Preventive imprisonment violates the presumption of innocence, which is the foundation of a fair criminal justice system.
  2. Preventive imprisonment subjects the accused to particularly harsh conditions while they await a trial and inhibits their ability to mount a competent defense.
  3. Preventive imprisonment contributes to overcrowding in correctional facilities, exacerbating desperate situations where public health crises, abuse, and other humanitarian concerns are rampant.
  4. Preventive imprisonment is a violation of international standards of human rights, including the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.