Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-ARGENTINA: Prison Brutality Focus of Amnesty Visit

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, May 3 2005 (IPS) - Ongoing complaints of police brutality and violations of basic rights in provincial prisons in northwestern Argentina prompted human rights watchdog Amnesty International to send a delegation to this South American country, to begin a fact-finding tour to four provinces on Wednesday.

"We are concerned because the authorities have been aware of these reports for several years, but the situation is just getting worse, and no preventive measures have been taken," Virginia Shoppe, Amnesty International researcher on Argentina, told IPS Tuesday, the day before the mission heads to the provinces of Jujuy, Salta, Santiago del Estero and Mendoza.

Shoppe said the London-based human rights group documented reports of mistreatment and torture of demonstrators and labour activists who were detained by the police in Salta and Jujuy in 2000 and 2001, as well as death threats and harassment of lawyers working on human rights cases. However, no investigation was ever launched, and cases of police brutality continue to be reported, she added.

A similar situation has been seen in Santiago del Estero, where incidents of police and "para-police" violence against rural activists and poor farmers have been denounced.

The Amnesty delegates will meet with the governors of each province, human rights lawyers, social and community activists, victims of police brutality, and families of victims.

They will also visit Mendoza, at the extreme western tip of Argentina. Shoppe said Amnesty is extremely concerned about the situation in the prisons there, where the human rights of inmates have been violated for years.

"Last year, Amnesty’s concern was heightened because, despite our reports, 17 inmates died in prisons in Mendoza," she said.

Although prison authorities record many of the deaths as "suicides," Shoppe noted that no investigations have been conducted to verify the cause of death.

The activist cited a case that occurred in "La Penitenciaría", a Mendoza jail that according to non-governmental organisations has the worst human rights record in Argentina. The body of one prisoner was dismembered into eight pieces, which were found in different parts of the facility last December.

The Organisation of American States (OAS) Inter-American Commission on Human Rights already carried out an inspection of "La Penitenciaría", an unusual step that led to a call for the Argentine government to adopt urgent measures to improve sanitary and health conditions in the facility, which houses 2,400 inmates although it was only built for 800, and to protect the lives of the prisoners.

However, the killings have continued, and the Inter-American Commission referred the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, another OAS body.

"In Mendoza, prison conditions are subhuman, and the United Nations international conventions signed by Argentina are routinely infringed," said Shoppe.

She also observed that the U.N. Convention Against Torture, to which Argentina is a signatory, provides guidelines on prison conditions, while the Argentine constitution states that penitentiaries must be clean and safe.

But in Mendoza, "inmates come out of prison in worse shape than when they went in," said Shoppe.

Amnesty sends a delegation to Argentina every two years. Due to the number of reports of serious human rights abuses in Salta, Jujuy, Santiago del Estero and Mendoza, the focus of this year’s visit is on those provinces.

But the human rights group also recognises that prison conditions in the eastern province of Buenos Aires, the subject of a number of reports by civil society organisations, are appalling.

Activists point out that in Buenos Aires, where the prison population has increased 70 percent in the past six years, the penitentiary system is on the verge of collapse due to the severe overcrowding and high levels of violence among the inmates. The number of violent deaths of prisoners and gu ards has risen threefold since 2002.

Renzo Pomi, Amnesty International’s representative at the U.N. in New York, also forms part of the delegation, which will end its visit on May 15 after a meeting with Foreign Minister Rafael Bielsa. The mission will then release a report with the results of its interviews.

Shoppe avoided comparing the situation in Argentine prisons with conditions in other countries, saying each case must be assessed within its own specific national context.

But she underlined that in Argentina, the authorities have been aware of the problem for years, and have taken no known preventive measures.

"We would like the governors to explain to us what measures they are taking to protect the citizens and promote an improvement in prison conditions, and to meet with them, face-to-face, to study whether changes are necessary in order to make the measures more effective," said the activist.

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