María Isabel Rivero
IACHR Press and Communication Office
Tel: +1 (202) 370-9001
Washington, D.C. - Five years after the fire at the Comayagua National Penitentiary in Honduras, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) reminds the State that it has an obligation to assume the investigation of these events as its own legal duty, pursuing all appropriate lines of inquiry, and to adopt measures of non-repetition to ensure that such tragedies do not happen again. The Commission also reminds Honduras of the State’s position as guarantor of the lives and personal integrity of persons deprived of liberty.
On February 14, 2012, a fire at the Comayagua National Penitentiary took the lives of 362 people—42 percent of that prison’s population—and left many others seriously injured. The fire started in one of the cells, for reasons that have yet to be established conclusively, and spread to consume half the prison. The actions of prison authorities and staff, who had neither the protocols nor the means in place to respond to this type of emergency, made it difficult for the Comayagua Fire Department to intervene quickly.
The day after the fire, the IACHR issued a press release, No. 19/12, in which it deplored the loss of life and urged the State to adopt concrete measures. The Commission also took the step of convening a public hearing, held in March 2012 during its 144th session, in which it reiterated to Honduras the seriousness of what had occurred and the need for an extensive reform of the prison system. The Inter-American Commission also arranged for an observation visit to Honduras in April 2012 by the Rapporteurship on the Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty.
As a result of that observation visit, the Rapporteurship interviewed some survivors from the Comayagua prison; authorities who had been at the fire; and even officials of the Comayagua Fire Department who had been warning of the hazardous conditions at the prison for years. Based on that visit, the Commission issued a report in 2013, in which it established that the devastating effect of the fire was due in large part to the conditions in which the State maintained the prison. The Commission called on Honduras to adopt a series of measures in two basic areas: (a) exhaust all possible lines of investigation, including those that could point to serious omissions by prison staff at the time of the fire, and even the possibility of other criminal acts; and (b) adopt the necessary measures to reduce the level of risk in emergency situations at prison facilities around the country, through actions that range from reducing overcrowding to implementing action protocols for such events.
Subsequently, during its on-site visit to Honduras in December 2014, and in its corresponding country report in 2015, the Commission again followed up on the aftermath of the Comayagua fire. During its visit to Honduras, the IACHR received troubling information regarding the lack of progress and other serious omissions in the investigations carried out by the Attorney General’s Office, and regarding threats and acts of intimidation directed toward victims’ family members. The IACHR also learned that one of the survivors of the fire had been killed days after giving a television interview. In its 2015 report, the Inter-American Commission reiterated that it is the State’s duty to treat the victims with humanity and to satisfy their just demands for truth, justice, and full reparation.
Five years after the worst prison tragedy in the history of the OAS Member States, in terms of loss of life, the Inter-American Commission is keeping the memory of these events alive. It underscores its commitment to monitor the situation of persons deprived of liberty in Honduras and reminds the State of its inescapable obligation to investigate these events with diligence and, where applicable, punish those responsible, and to adopt the appropriate measures of non-repetition established by the IACHR and by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
A principal, autonomous body of the OAS, the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.