The United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, presented a preliminary report upon concluding his official visit to Argentina in which he denounced detention conditions in police stations and prisons, which he linked to overcrowding and the hardline policies that stoke it.
“People cannot be allowed to live in these conditions. There must be a sense of urgency that this is not something to be discussed but something that needs to be solved. It’s a bit like a burning house: we need to act now, or it will get worse. Especially when we see that there are legislative projects and policy approaches that are likely to further increase the population in prisons,” Melzer said during a press conference in Buenos Aires.
The rapporteur contended that these detention conditions are a matter of humanitarian urgency and could constitute torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. “There can be no justification, whether economic, political, legal or otherwise, for any legislative, executive or judicial act or omission knowingly exposing human beings to such intolerable conditions,” he stated. During his visit to various police stations, transitory detention facilities and prison wards in the provinces of Buenos Aires, Córdoba and Formosa, he encountered alarming situations such as cells where the faucets did not work, forcing detainees to drink water from the toilets that they use to urinate and defecate.
With regard to institutional violence, he indicated that it is widespread and that there is a gap between the number of complaints filed and the quantity of investigations carried out. The rapporteur urged authorities to carry out prompt, impartial and transparent investigations of all complaints.
In his conclusions, the independent expert stated: “It is beyond any doubt that, in allowing this situation to arise, continue and further exacerbate despite repeated appeals on the part of civil society and international mechanisms, Argentina has become responsible for widespread and persistent violations of the Convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
In our view, what follows are some of his most relevant observations:
Excessive use of pretrial detention
The rapporteur expressed concern over the excessive use of pretrial detention. He affirmed that the judiciary appears to routinely order the deprivation of liberty in response to any suspicion that a crime has been committed, while alternative measures to detention seem to be utilized only in exceptional cases. He urged legislative authorities “to refrain from introducing new legislation reducing the minimum age for criminal responsibility or otherwise expanding the use of detention to additional categories of persons or offenses.”
The rapporteur called attention to the sharp rise in incarceration levels. He said that Argentina’s prison population tripled in the last two decades, creating a chronic situation of overcrowding throughout the country and fueling the prolonged detention of people in police stations in some provinces. At the press conference, he said that nowhere in the world are police stations suited to this purpose. He also noted that official statistics show prison occupancy is around 130% versus capacity.
The rapporteur stressed that the independent and periodic supervision of all centers used for deprivation of liberty continues to be one of the most effective tools for reducing the risk of torture and ill-treatment. He requested that officials guarantee free and unrestricted access to centers of detention and confinement on the part of all oversight bodies, whether they are governmental or civil society based. In addition, he urged that sufficient economic resources be allotted to the National Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture and that provinces establish their own mechanisms.
The rapporteur manifested his concern over the violent action taken by police when detaining people and transporting them in police vehicles, since in this context ill-treatment, acts of humiliation and torture have been denounced. He described complaints of police harassment of adolescents, young people and women, especially in marginalized neighborhoods, in some cases to force them to confess to supposed crimes or report others crimes presumably committed by other people.
Confinement in psychiatric institutions
The rapporteur strongly denounced the situation he observed in the psychiatric section of the Dr. Alejandro Korn Interzonal Hospital (known as “Melchor Romero”) in the city of La Plata, province of Buenos Aires. He considered that the patients are “subjected to degrading conditions incompatible with human dignity. The building accommodating these patients was found to be literally falling apart, sanitary installations were broken and toilets and bathroom were found to be filthy and flooded. To overcome the shortage of staff, some patients were reportedly forced to take excessive medication, including sleeping pills and no action was taken to keep the premises in an acceptable sanitary state. Left without proper care and attention, patients capable of doing so were changing the diapers of those with more severe disabilities so as to maintain a minimum level of personal hygiene.” Therefore, he sustained that these services in the hospital’s psychiatric section “must be closed without delay and replaced with adequately staffed and equipped institutions.”
He also urged authorities to take all the necessary measures to ensure compliance with their obligations as set forth in the National Mental Health Law and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
CELS has worked on many of the issues mentioned by the rapporteur. More information on the situation of people deprived of their liberty, persons with psychosocial disabilities, on police violence and the Memory, Truth and Justice process is available on our special minisite, prepared for the Universal Periodic Review of Argentina before the UN in 2017.