UN rights expert urges Uruguay to end ‘appalling’ prison conditions

Manfred Nowak, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment

27 March 2009 – Concluding his visit to Uruguay today, a United Nations human rights expert said he could not find hard evidence of torture, but urged action against what he called other “large-scale human rights violations” in detention facilities.

“I received few allegations of torture in police stations that could be proven beyond reasonable doubt by forensic examinations and other means of evidence,” Manfred Nowak, the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, said after his five-day visit to the South American country.

“However, I did receive numerous credible allegations of ill-treatment and excessive use of force in prisons, police stations and juvenile detention centres,” added Mr. Nowak, who, like all Special Rapporteurs, reports in an independent and unpaid capacity to the UN Human Rights Council.

He said he found Libertad Penitentiary particularly appalling, with convicted prisoners and pre-trial detainees held together “like animals in metal boxes” for almost 24 hours a day, often drinking from toilets because of restricted access to water.

Many detainees cut themselves in order to be taken to a doctor because of limited access to medical care, he reported.

“During the military dictatorship, Libertad Penitentiary became an infamous symbol for torture and ill-treatment. Two decades later, it is renowned for its sub-human conditions,” Mr. Nowak said.

Describing similarly disturbing conditions in juvenile detention centres, he said that many of the problems in the criminal justice system resulted from the lack of policy direction and little strategy for rehabilitation and reinsertion into society.

“The risk of a total collapse of the penitentiary system and the lack of an alternative concept is a serious source of insecurity, violence, and deterioration of basic values that severely impacts society as a whole,” he said.

“The people of Uruguay, a country known for its democracy and social development, do not deserve such a penitentiary system,” he stressed.

He applauded the Government’s ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and the recent adoption of a law establishing a National Human Rights Commission that includes a national mechanism for the prevention of torture.

He expressed hope that the new institution will build on the mechanism now under the Parliamentary Commissioner on Penitentiaries, maintaining that the Commissioner’s current mandate should be extended to cover all places of detention and sufficient resources should be provided for its activities.

Among other recommendations, Mr. Nowak urged the creation of a Ministry of Justice to be responsible for comprehensive reform of criminal justice and penitentiary policy; an increase in non-custodial measures as a means to reduce the overcrowding of prisons; and specific measures to improve conditions of facilities.

He also recommended that torture be criminalized in full accordance with the UN Convention and that every suspected case of torture and ill-treatment be fully investigated, with the perpetrators brought to justice.


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