Press Release

OHCHR and IACHR Concerned about the Situation of Persons Who Are Deprived of Liberty in Honduras

September 16, 2020

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Washington, D.C. - Tegucigalpa / Washington, D.C. – The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) are concerned about the crisis that is currently affecting the prison system in Honduras. Structural deficiencies—particularly regarding health and security—have deepened and been exacerbated in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The OHCHR and the IACHR also observe with concern that the intervention of the Honduran prison system by the country’s Intervention Committee that includes staff from the National Inter-Institutional Security Force (FUSINA, by its Spanish acronym) has been extended.

The OHCHR and the IACHR have already addressed in the past the high rates of overcrowding that prevail in Honduran prisons. According to data issued by the National Prisons Institute (INP, by its Spanish acronym), there were 21,670 prison inmates in the country by August 31, 2020. On August 30, 2019, Honduran prisons held 21,589 inmates, which shows that there has not been significant change in these figures. Approximately 53.7% of all individuals who are deprived of liberty in the country are in pretrial detention, and 11,193 of all inmates are women.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the OHCHR and the IACHR note efforts made by the State to reduce overcrowding in prisons. These include Decree 36-2020, issued on June 10, 2020, which requires mainly a compulsory review of all precautionary measures involving pretrial detention for individuals whose health condition puts them at greater risk of infection with COVID-19, with a view to applying non-custodial measures instead. This decree also enables the option of imposing non-custodial measures for crimes where the Code of Criminal Procedure established pretrial detention as the only possible precautionary measure. The State notes that—through the Plan to Reduce Overcrowding in Penitentiary Facilities—a total of 1,263 pre-release benefits had been granted to inmates by June 12, 2020.

However, the OHCHR and the IACHR find that inmates in Honduran prisons continue to face particularly high risks. The health situation in penitentiaries is one of the main causes for concern. The State reported that, by August 31, 2020, a total of 1,695 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 in 25 prisons around the country. These cases need to be added to the number of members of medical, security, and administrative staff in penitentiary facilities who have also tested positive for the virus. Further, more than 20 prison inmates have died of COVID-19, according to estimates issued by the National Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture and Other Forms of Ill-Treatment (MNP-CONAPREV, by its Spanish acronym).

The OHCHR and the IACHR therefore urge the State to take all prevention and control measures needed to address cases of COVID-19 in Honduran prisons. It is particularly important for the State to conduct more tests for the virus within penitentiaries and to streamline the release of test results. The OHCHR and the IACHR also urge the State to prioritize—in policies to reduce prison populations—individuals who are particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic based on factors including their age, health condition, and pregnancy. The OHCHR and the IACHR further recommend prioritizing cases involving individuals who have been convicted of less serious crimes and those who have been arrested for cases linked to the defense of human rights.

Given that persons who are deprived of liberty have had their right to receive visitors restricted amid measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the OHCHR and the IACHR remind the State of its obligation to protect the right of these individuals to communicate with their families and legal representatives. The State must therefore implement alternative measures to ensure communications and gradually reduce restrictions on visits.

The OHCHR and the IACHR have also expressed their concern about the militarization of the Honduran prison system, especially in light of the declaration of an emergency situation and the intervention of the country’s prisons by the FUSINA, through Decree PCM-068-2019 of December 2019. This decree initially provided for a six-month intervention that was set to end on June 16, 2020. However, the recent Decree PCM-051-2020 extended the intervention until December 31, 2020.

The OHCHR and the IACHR note that the State has failed to publicly report on the success of its mission, its main results, and any plans to transfer control of the penitentiary system to civilian authorities. The OHCHR and the IACHR therefore call for a public report to be issued on the success of this mission and on the obligations that the original decree imposed on the Intervention Committee. The report should also state the results of this mission and the State’s strategy to remove military forces from efforts to manage the penitentiary system and to guard penitentiary facilities. Handing over these responsibilities to civilian authorities is crucial for compliance with Honduras’ international obligations.

Since this emergency was formally declared and went into force, the OHCHR and the IACHR have observed high levels of violence in penitentiary facilities. At least eight incidents in prisons have left at least 54 inmates dead, as well as many injured. In this context, allegations have been made of torture and other forms of ill-treatment by the security forces. Of the 54 people dead in these incidents, at least 14 (including seven women) died during the COVID-19 pandemic. The OHCHR and the IACHR warn that several of these violent events happened in maximum security prisons and in the Women’s Prison for Social Adjustment (PNFAS, by its Spanish acronym), a facility where no violent deaths had previously been reported. It is also worrying that several of these incidents involved the use by inmates of firearms and other banned objects.

The OHCHR and the IACHR stress that the State of Honduras must appropriately enforce protocols to prevent riots and restore security within penitentiaries, without resorting to an excessive use of force. The OHCHR and the IACHR also remind the State that it must comply with its obligation to grant the victims of these human rights violations access to justice, by ensuring an effective, prompt, and impartial investigation and by punishing anyone responsible for these events at all levels.

In the context addressed by this press release, it is essential to protect the fundamental role played by human rights defenders, national institutions for the protection of human rights and the prevention of torture, and trial judges. The State must therefore step up its efforts to ensure that various authorities enforce the sentences imposed by trial judges, as well as the recommendations issued by national institutions for the protection of human rights and the prevention of torture. In particular, the OHCHR and the IACHR urge the State of Honduras to review and implement the normative framework that protects the CONAPREV’s autonomy and its financial and administrative independence. The State must take all measures necessary to ensure that the Committee has the three members required by law and that their appointments are in line with the Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention against Torture and the international recommendations that have been made to Honduras in this respect.

Finally, the IACHR and the OHCHR note their willingness to provide technical assistance to the State of Honduras, so it may protect the rights of persons who are deprived of liberty, particularly by protecting their physical and mental integrity, their health, and their lives and by enabling their social integration, in keeping with the country’s applicable international obligations.

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. 221/20