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Honduran Government Seeks to Minimise Cost of Prison Fire

TEGUCIGALPA, Feb 23 2012 (IPS) - The government of Honduras hopes to reach friendly settlements with the families of inmates killed in the Comayagua prison fire, to avoid international lawsuits.

Meanwhile, a team of U.S. investigators concluded that the blaze, the world’s deadliest prison fire in a century, was accidental but could have been avoided if certain problems had been addressed earlier.

Honduras’s minister of justice and human rights, Ana Pineda, told IPS that “we are preparing for a visit” by an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights mission “to address these aspects, because we are aware that the Honduran state is exposed to legal action and we want to reach friendly settlements.”

The authorities reported that 360 of the 852 inmates in the prison in the central region of Comayagua died in the Feb. 15 fire.

The team of investigators from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) said the fire was not premeditated, but could have been avoided if safety issues had been addressed in time, such as overcrowding, the presence of flammable materials, shortage of prison staff and lack of an evacuation plan,

The ATF team, who began to investigate two days after the fire at the request of the government of right-wing President Porfirio Lobo, said the cause was believed to be an open flame, such as a cigarette or lit match, but clarified that “the actual ignition source was not recovered.”

“The fire is believed to have begun in the area of the top two bunk beds in the fourth column along the western side of the prison’s module six, which ignited nearby flammable materials,” said a statement released Tuesday Feb. 21 by the U.S. Embassy in Honduras.

The team, which used cutting-edge equipment and trained dogs, “was able to rule out other possible causes of the fire, such as a lightning strike, electrical causes, or the use of a flammable or combustible liquid.”

Honduras’s attorney general, Luis Rubí, said the ATF report would be followed by an investigation into the presumed negligence of the country’s prison authority, for which “our staff has interviewed more than 80 survivors and other people to investigate this aspect and determine responsibilities.”

But the ATF report met with some scepticism among families of the victims, who have expressed despair over the delay in handing over the bodies of their loved ones.

To explain the delay, prosecutors say many of the bodies were burned beyond recognition, no fingerprints are available, and only a few have been identified by DNA testing.

Media reports that the bodies would be buried in a common grave prompted a group of victims’ relatives to storm the city morgue on Monday Feb. 20 and open several body bags, in a scene that shook the public.

“The (ATF) report is a first step forward,” said Gloria Redondo, the widow of one of the inmates who died in the fire. “But other things are lacking, so I can’t say I believe it is 100 percent accurate. We have set up a victims committee and until we find out the whole truth, we are not going to give our support to anything.

“We want a thorough report, because it wasn’t clothes or shoes that were lost in this fire, but human beings like our husbands, brothers and friends. This can’t go unpunished,” the 35-year-old woman told IPS, unable to contain her tears.

Redondo’s husband Marcio Arturo Sánchez, a former youth gang member, was still in prison even though he completed his sentence in September 2011, due to the slow-moving prison bureaucracy.

He was 32 years old and had written several essays describing life in the youth gangs or “maras” like the Salvatrucha gang, which he had joined when he was just 10 years old.

On Tuesday, President Lobo visited the shelter where relatives of the inmates are temporarily staying while they wait for the government to hand over the remains of the victims.

At the shelter, where there is a wall full of messages of grief and pain written by the relatives, the president said he hoped to reach a friendly agreement to avoid “the longer and more tortuous path” of international legal action.

The Honduran state does not deny its responsibility, which is why “I offer you reparations through the route of a friendly settlement; I am making the necessary consultations,” Lobo told the families.

Honduras’s 24 prisons are designed to hold 8,250 prisoners, but the human rights commissioner reported last year that they housed nearly 13,000 inmates.

Given the overcrowding and other severe problems noted by the ATF experts, it is hardly surprising that a series of tragic episodes have occurred in this country’s prisons.

One of these was the 2003 massacre in the El Porvenir prison in the northern port city of La Ceiba, where 69 people were killed. Although nine people were convicted in 2008 in connection with the massacre, no in-depth investigation of who was ultimately responsible was conducted.

Another tragedy in which no one has been found responsible was the 2004 fire in the prison in the northern city of San Pedro Sula, where 107 inmates died.

Next week, a hearing on the San Pedro Sula prison fire will be held before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica.

According to a press release, the Inter-American Commission concluded that the deaths were “the direct result of a series of structural deficiencies, which were known by the competent authorities, but were neither attended nor corrected in a timely manner.”

“We are going to seek viable settlements, without evading responsibilities, and in the case of Comayagua we will be transparent, nothing will be hidden,” foreign minister Arturo Corrales responded to a question from IPS.

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