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Human Rights

Surprise Visits to Prisons in Argentina to Prevent Torture

BUENOS AIRES, Dec 19 2012 (IPS) - Representatives of the Argentine state and of non- governmental organisations will be visiting prisons without prior warning, beginning next year, to prevent inmates from being tortured and abused – a problem that persists three decades after the end of the dictatorship, often with fatal results.

Under a new law that created the National Mechanism for Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, a team will be set up to make regular surprise visits to prisons as well as police stations, psychiatric hospitals and juvenile institutions.

Members of the team can demand information about inmates, meet their families, interview prison officials and keep a record of habeas corpus writs filed in order to ensure the safety of prisoners and adequate prison conditions.

The law, approved in late November, brings the country in line with the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT), an international treaty ratified by Argentina in 2004.

OPCAT, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2002 as an addition to the 1984 U.N. Convention against Torture, and came into force in 2006, established an international inspection system for prisons. This includes an international subcommittee to monitor that the states parties establish national mechanisms for visits to prisons.

The treaty set a deadline for states to comply with the provision, which in the case of Argentina was 2007. But the law creating the mechanism was delayed for five years because of disagreements over the composition of the oversight body.

In an interview with IPS, lawyer Eva Asprella, coordinator of the Working Group on Persons Deprived of Liberty at the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), a prominent local human rights group, explained that the difficulties were due to the fact that the provinces in this federal country enjoy considerable autonomy.

The debate was solved by designing a 13-member National Committee and a Federal Council made up of the local (regional or provincial) mechanisms. The two bodies will operate in a coordinated manner, and there will also be representatives of the local mechanisms on the National Committee.

The Committee will be made up of the national prison ombudsman, a delegate from the central government’s Human Rights Secretariat, six representatives chosen by Congress, who cannot be legislators, two representatives of the local mechanisms and three civil society experts.

“This was a necessary, but not sufficient, step towards ensuring prevention,” Asprella said. “It’s a way of setting foot inside the prisons, getting past the walls, establishing dialogue, seeing what goes on inside, making recommendations and resorting to the justice system with writs of habeas corpus.”

The legislation will also give protection to many small organisations that are working under great difficulties in the provinces, she said. “CELS is well known and has had no problems, but some groups have been denied permission to enter the prisons, quite arbitrarily,” she said.

This was the case with the Human Rights Network in the northeastern province of Corrientes, which has been banned from entering the prisons, and the Zainuco Association in the southern province of Neuquén, she said.

Angie Acosta, one of the Zainuco Association’s lawyers, told IPS that in the view of her organisation, “the creation of the mechanism is essential for monitoring prisons.

“As soon as we started denouncing torture cases, they banned us from entering” Unit Number 11 in Neuquén, the capital of the province, said Acosta. “They said it was for security reasons, but they let the churches in,” she added.

Acosta pointed out that in 2004 there was a riot in that prison that was put down with brutal force, lasting four days and resulting in the trial of 27 police agents for torture. But only six were convicted, for lesser crimes.

The crisis broke out because of the officers’ abusive treatment of the mother of Cristian Ibazeta, a 34-year-old blind inmate with multiple sclerosis.

Ibazeta, who had filed numerous complaints about torture, was stabbed to death inside the prison in May, when he was only a month away from being eligible for furlough.

An investigation published by CELS in the book “Derechos Humanos en Argentina: Informe 2012” (2012 Report on Human Rights in Argentina) details tortures, beatings, arbitrary transfers, excessive punishment and lack of hygiene, which it says are common currency in many of the country’s prisons.

In the eastern province of Buenos Aires, the country’s most populous, which accounts for 50 percent of all prisoners, there is also severe overcrowding, with inmates sleeping on the floor without access to toilets and subjected to freezing showers and beatings, while their family members have to submit to humiliating gropings when they visit.

Asprella described how in January, 26-year-old Patricio Barros Cisneros, an inmate in a Buenos Aires prison, was beaten to death by prison guards after asking for a private place to meet with his wife, who was eight months pregnant.

“If a 26-year-old man was beaten to death by a gang in the street, it would be a media scandal for days. But when it happens in a prison, society ignores it, so it goes on happening,” she said.

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