In the context of the Atlas of Torture Project, a cooperation project funded by the European Union, which aims at assisting the government and civil society in their efforts to implement the recommendations made in 2009, Manfred Nowak and his team carried out an assessment visit to Uruguay from 19 to 30 March 2012. They received full cooperation and support by all stakeholders during their meetings, including by the Ministers of Interior and Health, the acting Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Director of Human Rights of the Ministry of Education and Culture, the President of SIRPA, the acting General Prosecutor, the President of the Human Rights Commission of the Chamber of Representatives, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Penitentiary System, and representatives of non-governmental and inter-governmental organisations. In addition, they meet with the President of the Republic of Uruguay.
From Left to Right, Manfred Nowak, Geoffrey Barrett, EU Ambassador, Ana Juanche, SERPAJ coordinator for Latin America
On the basis of discussions with all relevant stakeholders and the opportunity to visit again a number of prisons, the team came to the conclusion that a reform of the prison system can only be successful within the framework of a comprehensive reform of the entire criminal justice system. Although Uruguay is not among the countries with a particularly high crime rate, it features the second highest incarceration rate in the whole of South America. The fact that roughly two-thirds of all detainees are non-convicted shows a serious deficiency of the criminal justice system. Worldwide, Uruguay ranks number 16 with regard to the rate of pre-trial detainees. In reality, there is no distinction between pre-trial detainees and convicted prisoners in the prison system as well as in the perception of the police, judges, prosecutors, the media and the public at large. Within 48 hours of arrest of a person suspected of having committed a crime, the fate of this person will be decided by the prosecution and judges without an adequate chance of defense in accordance with the principle of equality of arms. Although international law provides for pre-trial detention as an exceptional measure to be imposed for a very limited period, Uruguayan law provides for pre-trial detention as a rule rather than an exception. In fact, it is used as a form of punishment, which renders the presumption of innocence meaningless.
Civil society round-table, discussion on torture and prison conditions
The present system of pre-trial detention is the main cause of overcrowding, and all related problems, such as inhuman living conditions, poor hygienic standards, structural violence and a lack of work, education and rehabilitation in the Uruguayan prison system. Without effectively addressing this problem, all other well-intended efforts to reform the prison system are doomed to fail.
During recent prison visits, the team noted with satisfaction that Las Latas in Libertad and module 3 of COMCAR have been closed down last year by the current government. However, the conditions in some modules at COMCAR prison were even worse than in 2009 and the urgent recommendation made by Manfred Nowak as Special Rapporteur to close them down haven’t been complied.
In addition, – despite the government’s policy of transferring the prison management from the police to civilian staff – the management of the two biggest prisons of the country, i.e. COMCAR and Libertad, seemed to be guided by a predominantly security oriented approach.
Overcrowded prison cell - COMCAR
During the upcoming visits, the Atlas of Torture team together with its civil society partner SERPAJ, plans to assist the present Government to speed up their long term reform efforts aimed at a swift adoption of a new Criminal Procedure Code and the implementation of a prison system with the goal of full rehabilitation and reintegration of criminal offenders as well as assisting in the development of comprehensive regulations for the functioning of the National Institute for Rehabilitation, specifically concerning minimum standards of treatment of persons deprived of their liberty, a consistent strategy on rehabilitation, and the establishment of an effective internal complaints system. In relation to the implementation of a new approach to the treatment of children in detention, the team proposes to assist in the development of statutory regulations on the rights of juvenile detainees. In addition, the team is of the opinion that the effective functioning of a National Preventive Mechanism for monitoring of detention facilities requires a clear definition and legal regulation of its independence, composition and mandate, as well as professional capacities of its members and staff.
During their next visit to Uruguay the Atlas of Torture team will implement on the 22nd and 23rd of May a conference on the prevention of torture. The general objectives and the methodology of the event can be found here.
Press Release (Spanish):