Press Release

IACHR Regrets Deaths in Fire at Juvenile Detention Facility in Paraguay

September 29, 2017

   Contact info

IACHR Press and Communication Office
Tel: +1 (202) 370-9000

   More on the IACHR
A+ A-

Washington, D.C.—The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) regrets the deaths of two adolescents as a result of a fire that took place at a detention facility for male juveniles (Centro Educativo Integral de Adolescente Varones) in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, and the situation of another 12 adolescents who had to be taken to hospitals after suffering burns and smoke inhalation. Two of them reportedly remain in serious condition. The Ciudad del Este facility houses adolescents in conflict with the law who are in custody, most of them in pretrial detention. The IACHR urges the State to investigate the events surrounding the fire diligently and without delay, and to take urgent steps to ensure that such events do not happen again.

According to publicly available information, on September 13, 2017, juveniles at the Ciudad del Este facility set fire to mattresses, causing a fire that affected the facility’s largest cellblock. At least 14 adolescents suffered burns and were affected by smoke inhalation, and 12 of them were taken to Asunción to be treated at a burn center (Centro Nacional de Quemaduras y Cirugías Reconstructivas, Cenquer). Two of the injured died from severe burns, and another two are said to be in serious condition. One hypothesis in the investigation is that the events stemmed from a protest by a group of inmates over poor conditions and abuse at the facility. The Public Prosecutor’s Office has opened an investigation to clarify what happened and why, and to shed light on who might be responsible.

The National Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture visited this facility twice, in August and December of 2016, and stated in its report that the facility had problems related to infrastructure and health conditions. The facility lacked smoke detection and fire-fighting systems and had no evacuation plans; it had unsafe electrical installations; the adolescents remained confined for long hours; situations of violence, abuse, and mistreatment were identified; the facility’s technical team was short-staffed and lacked enough professionals, which resulted in a deficient ability to comprehensively address the adolescents’ needs; and the medical attention was inadequate, among other problems.

The State, as guarantor of the fundamental rights of persons deprived of liberty, has an unavoidable legal obligation to take concrete actions to protect inmates’ rights to life and personal integrity, particularly measures to ensure the inmates’ well-being and to prevent and control potentially unsafe situations such as riots, fires, and outbreaks of violence in prisons.

Furthermore, when those deprived of liberty are adolescents, States must be all the more diligent and responsible in their role as guarantor and must take special measures based on the principle of the best interest of the child, as the Inter-American Court established in 2004, in its judgment in the Case of the “Juvenile Reeducation Institute” v. Paraguay.

“Adolescents deprived of liberty may not be subjected to situations of violence or situations that threaten their personal integrity, dignity, and comprehensive development,” said the IACHR Rapporteur on the Rights of Children and Adolescents, Commissioner Esmeralda Arosemena de Troitiño. “States must take the necessary measures so that adolescents can live a decent life while in custody. Facilities for adolescents in conflict with the law should be adapted to their needs and be able to offer them services through socio-educational programs with specialized staff, in keeping with their essential role of rehabilitation and social reintegration,” she added.

The IACHR is also concerned to observe the excessive use of pretrial detention for adolescents in contact with the criminal justice system in Paraguay, particularly at the Ciudad del Este facility where the fire occurred. According to the report on the 2016 visit by the National Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture, at the time of the visit, nine of every ten juveniles at the facility had not been convicted of a crime. More than half of the adolescents were incarcerated for theft or robbery and more than 20 percent for drug-related offenses, primarily possession. The IACHR believes that this situation could constitute an arbitrary and illegal use of pretrial detention.

“It is urgent for the State of Paraguay to conduct an evaluation of the use of pretrial detention for adolescents and take the necessary corrective steps to put an end to this widespread and common practice,” said Commissioner James Cavallaro, the IACHR Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty. “The Commission just published a report on measures aimed at reducing the use of pretrial detention in the Americas, which contains recommendations for implementing alternatives to pretrial detention and which we believe the State of Paraguay will find useful to correct this situation.”

The IACHR urges the State to fulfill its obligation to proactively conduct an immediate, impartial, and effective investigation into the events at the Ciudad del Este facility, including all deaths and violations of integrity. These investigations should be designed to shed light on the circumstances of what occurred, determine the reasons behind the protest and subsequent fire, and establish any blame that applies for actions or omissions. The State should also adopt the necessary measures to bring the conditions at the facility into line with applicable international standards.

Finally, the IACHR urges the State to effectively implement a comprehensive public policy regarding adolescents in contact with the law and evaluate it periodically to ensure that it is fully consistent with Paraguay’s international commitments, allocating sufficient resources for that purpose.

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 defense of 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. 149/17