Press Release

IACHR Calls on El Salvador to Protect the Rights of Individuals Who are Deprived of Liberty

April 29, 2020

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Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) urges the State of El Salvador to take action to protect the lives, health, integrity, and dignity of individuals who are deprived of liberty, particularly those held in penitentiaries where the authorities have implemented the extreme emergency measures recently ordered by Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele.

According to publicly available reports, Bukele decreed on April 25 a state of extreme emergency in penitentiaries holding alleged members of criminal organizations. Measures include a 24-hour indoor lock-up, solitary confinement for leaders of criminal organizations, a cutoff in inmates’ communications with their families, and the cancellation of all activities. These open-ended measures were adopted due to a rise in the number of homicides during the weekend of April 24. The State of El Salvador told the Commission that 84 homicides had allegedly been committed by criminal organizations between April 23 and April 28, which amounts to an average of 16.8 homicides per day.

The country’s deputy Justice minister and the head of El Salvador’s prison system implemented these measures immediately. In particular, the deputy Justice minister said on Twitter that inmates belonging to different gangs would go on to share cells in the penitentiaries of Izalco, Ciudad Barrios, San Francisco Gotera, and Quezaltepeque, and at the maximum security prison in Zacatecoluca. There are videos on social media accounts managed by the government of El Salvador that show individuals who are deprived of liberty being subjected to inhuman, degrading treatment in the context of the relevant transfer procedures. The IACHR notes that this footage shows guards keeping inmates in their underwear, with no shoes, all next to each other. These individuals were allegedly also subjected to invasive searches by prison staff. The Commission notes that the Salvadoran State denies claims that this treatment is inhuman or degrading. However, these videos show actions that are an affront to human dignity, according to the applicable international standards.

The IACHR notes that these types of measures evidence a criminal policy to combat—through extraordinary measures—crimes arranged from within penitentiaries. The Commission has repeatedly stated that it condemns these actions. In the preliminary observations it issued in the wake of an on-site visit to El Salvador on December 2–4, 2019, the IACHR said that, while it understood the State’s responsibility to prevent and fight crime, the decision to keep extraordinary measures permanently in force was a cause for particular concern. The Commission noted that these measures—including prolonged, open-ended confinement under inhuman conditions, an impact on health, visit cancellations, and hurdles for due process—lead to serious violations of the human rights of individuals who are deprived of liberty.

Similarly, in the conclusions and observations on its visit to El Salvador on November 20–22, 2017, the Commission expressed its concern about the application of these sorts of open-ended measures, given their impact on the rights of individuals who are deprived of liberty.

The IACHR also notes that holding members of different criminal organizations in the same space may trigger clashes or riots that could lead inmates to lose their lives or suffer injuries. Further, despite health-related and other national emergency measures adopted to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the conditions of isolation and confinement faced by individuals held in maximum emergency settings entail greater risks for inmates’ health and integrity.

Based on its responsibility to protect the fundamental rights of all individuals in its custody, in compliance with the IACHR’s Principles and Best Practices on the Protection of Persons Deprived of Liberty in the Americas, the Salvadoran State has an inescapable duty to take concrete, immediate action to protect the rights to life, health, and integrity of individuals who are deprived of liberty. In this context, the IACHR notes that El Salvador must ensure conditions of detention that respect all inmates’ dignity, provide healthcare services to individuals who are deprived of liberty, and implement conditions of confinement in compliance with the relevant international standards. These measures are particularly urgent considering that the consequences of the pandemic put these individuals particularly at risk.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (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 and to defend 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.

No. 093/20