Today, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, & Global Women’s Issues Subcommittee will hear testimony from Mark Wells, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA), as well as the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement’s (INL) Global Anti-Corruption Coordinator Richard Nephew and Deputy Assistant Secretary Chris Landberg.

Here are THREE key questions these officials must address:

  1. Has the Biden Administration established if any U.S. nationals were impacted in the tragedy at La Victoria National Penitentiary? 

Last month, a fire at La Victoria National Penitentiary claimed at least 13 lives. Manuel María Mercedes, President of National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH-DR), a leading Dominican civil society organization, stated that due to the cramped and crowded conditions within this part of the facility, the death toll is likely much higher. A significant amount of U.S. taxpayer dollars that have funded the Dominican Republic’s prison reform system, either directly through INL or the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC). With the Dominican Republic’s inability to manage its prison system now clear, the U.S. government needs to lead an investigation into this tragedy and demand to know how many U.S. nationals may have tragically lost their lives.

La Victoria is the epicenter of the DR preventive detention crisis. The conditions that made this fire so deadly are a direct result of the excessive implementation of preventive detention by the Public Ministry. In its 2022 Human Rights Report on the Dominican Republic, the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo called out the “gross overcrowding and unsanitary conditions” in “old-model prisons” including La Victoria, which held “7,761 inmates, although it was designed for a maximum capacity of 2,103.”

The signs have been clear for years to human rights observers in the Dominican Republic that the situation in La Victoria was preventable. As far back as 1997, Human Rights Watch reported on the desperate situation within La Victoria’s walls, where “approximately 90 percent of the detainees had never been tried.” In 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, prisoners rioted after authorities refused to do anything to prevent the spread of coronavirus. And earlier this year, another fire broke out – a preview of the deadly fire that took place in last month’s tragedy.

Like the National Police, the U.S. has provided millions of dollars in helping the Dominican Republic upgrade its prisons, but at the beginning of his term, President Abinader slowed construction of the “new model” prison that would help ease the overcrowding and public health crises taking place at La Victoria. It’s still unclear how many U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents are victims of this tragedy that could have been avoided if the Dominican government took its preventive detention crisis seriously.

  1. How is the U.S. government supporting the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention’s condemnation of the Dominican Republic’s use of preventive detention and its complete disregard for the rule of law?

Last year, the UN’s Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) found that the Dominican government’s behavior in the case of former Attorney General Jean Rodríguez Sánchez 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.

The WGAD urged the Dominican government to “carry out a thorough and independent investigation” into the circumstances surrounding Rodríguez Sánchez’s arbitrary detention and “take appropriate measures against those responsible for the violation of his rights.” The Dominican government was given six months by the WGAD to take steps to address the violations raised in the WGAD’s decision, although the posture of the Public Ministry make it clear that they have no intent to do so.

Dominican judges and jurists, Members of the U.S. House of Representatives, and now the United Nations Human Rights Council have pointed out what is abundantly clear: the Dominican Republic’s anti-corruption investigations are rife with politicization and regularly violate due process rights.

The UN’s six-month window granted to the Dominican government to address these issues is rapidly closing, and they have made it abundantly clear that they have no intention to take the WGAD’s report seriously. The U.S. government needs to reinforce the mandate of the Human Rights Council and support a country visit from the WGAD.

  1. What is the U.S. government doing to address the Dominican Republic’s problems with human trafficking and forced labor?

In addition to its preventive detention crisis, the Dominican Republic has serious problems with human trafficking and forced labor which progressive labor advocates compare to “modern day slavery.”

There are stark reports about the dire living conditions for these exploited workers, often without electricity and running water, when they’re forced to work for 12 to 14 hours for less than $2 a day.

On a related front, the DR was recently downgraded to the Tier 2 Watch List in the U.S. State Departments 2023 Trafficking in Persons report.  Justifying the downgrade, the State Department noted the Abinader government “investigated and prosecuted fewer traffickers” and “systematically and persistently failed to equitably screen vulnerable migrant or undocumented populations and refer identified victims to services and did not provide these groups justice in trafficking crimes.”

There is an overwhelming body of evidence detailing human rights violations, abuses and systemic issues plaguing the Dominican Republic. The supreme disregard for citizen security must be thoroughly investigated by the U.S. government, as it is more than likely that U.S. nationals are impacted by the Dominican government’s blatant disregard for human rights.