Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-ARGENTINA: Chilling Report on Torture in Prisons

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Nov 2 2004 (IPS) - A report by a government committee set up a year ago to combat torture in the Argentine province of Buenos Aires revealed an appalling number of abuses committed in local prisons and police stations.

The report, "A System of Cruelty: Corruption and Torture in Prisons and Police Stations in the Province of Buenos Aires", was drafted by the Committee Against Torture, part of the Provincial Commission for Memory, an independent public human rights body headed by prosecutor Hugo Cañón.

The investigation reported abuses including a savage beating of a prisoner with HIV (the AIDS virus) by a prison guard, and the use of torture techniques like electric shock, ice-cold showers in winter or near asphyxia by immersion of the head in water.

In addition, the study reports the trafficking of drugs in jails, and states that prison employees sometimes force inmates to go out and commit crimes.

In recent years, prison conditions in Argentina have been the focus of reports by leading human rights watchdogs like the London-based Amnesty International and the New York-based Human Rights Watch. The United Nations Human Rights Commission has also expressed concern.

According to the report released late last week by Argentina’s Committee Against Torture, the number of inmates in the penitentiaries of the province of Buenos Aires climbed from 15,000 to nearly 25,000 in the past four years, as the economic crisis deepened, unemployment and poverty soared and social marginalisation expanded.

Prisons in the province are severely overcrowded, and 5,800 inmates are held in police lockups, instead of appropriate facilities.

Conditions in the prisons are dismal, with inmates held in cells or even containers lacking windows or ventilation, only a few bathrooms to be shared by dozens of inmates, not enough mattresses, cold water showers in a climate where temperatures often dip below freezing in winter, torture rooms, windows without glass, toilets without water, and telephones that do not work and are never repaired.

A year ago, the U.N. Human Rights Commission’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention sent a delegation to visit prisons in the province of Buenos Aires, which the delegates compared in their report to prisons in countries without democracy, like Iran.

The delegation reported conditions of extreme cruelty, citing the case of a police station where the jail was designed as a temporary holding station for five detainees, but which held 30 inmates who had to take turns sleeping and had no access to toilet facilities.

Cañón told IPS that the Committee Against Torture was created in late 2003, after the U.N. delegation’s report came out, to investigate human rights violations in 32 prisons and police stations, where more than 90 percent of inmates are in pretrial detention, awaiting sentencing.

The Committee asked judges and prosecutors to report and act on complaints of mistreatment and abuse.

But since such reports were not obligatory, nothing happened until the provincial Supreme Court ordered legal system employees to follow up on complaints, last March.

Nevertheless, at least 70 percent of complaints are never followed up or acted on, and the Committee Against Torture report reveals just a "sample" of the real number of abuses, said Cañón.

That "sample" includes 3,241 complaints of unlawful coercion, torture, abuse of authority, illegal searches, threats, serious injuries and homicides. "In every case, the perpetrators belonged to the prison service," said Cañón.

Of the total number of cases opened since 2000 based on complaints and reports of abuses, 1,434 were shelved, 52 were thrown out or closed, and 1,751 are still being processed. "Only in four cases was anyone convicted," said Cañón, a prosecutor from the city of Bahía Blanca, in the southern part of the province of Buenos Aires.

In one case cited by the report, a female prisoner was forced to undergo a strip search. When she refused to remove her underpants because she was menstruating, she was taken to the showers, where she was beaten almost to death by four guards, under the cold water.

The reported abuses included 25 murders of inmates. "The real number is much higher, but they are registered as suicides or as killings in fights between prisoners, when in reality they are homicides," said Cañón.

He illustrated by citing a case in which a prisoner was attacked from behind by a fellow inmate known as a "collaborator" – prison slang for those who are allowed by the guards to carry home-made knives.

Defending himself, the man killed the inmate who attacked him. Nevertheless, the incident was reported as homicide, rather than as a case of legitimate self-defence.

The Committee Against Torture will produce an annual report, to assess follow-up on complaints of abuses and create a databank that will be under the supervision of the Provincial Commission for Memory.

Alejandro Mosquera, one of the members of the Committee Against Torture, told IPS that there were two main kinds of irregularities involving the handling of food: prison directors who steal part of the food, and others who overbill the government, reporting larger quantities of food than are actually purchased.

But in the end, both forms of corruption have the same effect: the reduction in the quantity and quality of the food that actually reaches the inmates, who say they are often fed meat that is not fit for human consumption.

"They steal everything, and what reaches us is inedible," complained one inmate quoted in the report.

The document describes the prisons as "no rights zones" or "human warehouses", subject to the whims of those who run them. The state thus tolerates "systematic violence" against prisoners, who are deprived of even their most basic rights, says the Committee Against Torture.

After receiving the report last week, Buenos Aires provincial Governor Felipe Solá pledged to accelerate the construction of new prisons to replace dilapidated facilities and ease overcrowding, improve supervision and oversight of prison employees, and initiate investigations of those who are reported for abuses or corruption, including some of those targeted in cases that were already dismissed or closed by the courts.

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