United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, Nils Melzer held a press conference on Friday to present the preliminary observations of his visit to Argentina, which took place between April 9 and 20 and was aimed at “assessing the prevailing situation and challenges in the country,” concerning his area of expertise.

His observations were critical. He depicted a dire state of both the infrastructure in which people who have been deprived from their liberty – whether it is in prison or mental health facilities – are being held, and the treatment they receive from the officials who are tasked with overseeing their conduct.

In fact, the only area in which Melzer did not urge authorities to take specific action was in the one regarding “the crimes of the past,” as he lauded ” the significant efforts undertaken by successive democratic Governments of Argentina to hold accountable those responsible for the human rights abuses perpetrated during the military dictatorship.” Even though he noted that the “process of redress, truth, and accountability is not yet complete,” he highlighted the need to “continue their exemplary efforts towards overcoming one of darkest periods in the country’s history” and allocate enough resources to do so.

In all other aspects the rapporteur evaluated during his visit, the Argentine system showed several flaws, which begin with the failure to properly define torture in accordance with the UN’s convention regarding the matter. Melzer said that article 144 ter of the criminal code “does not attribute criminal responsibility for torture to a sufficiently wide range of perpetrators and does not include the purposefulness of the conduct in question as a defining element of the offense.”

Photo via Diario Hoy
Photo via Diario Hoy

Melzer also noted that even though Argentina was one of the first states to ratify the convention’s protocol, it has not taken the necessary steps within its borders to implement it. And showed concern about the fact that the existing monitoring bodies, such as the National Penitentiary Attorney, have not been granted full access to detention centers in the visited provinces.

The rapporteur then delved into the issue of pre-trial arrests. Because even though the subject gained visibility through the cases of high-profile figures in the political landscape who ended up behind bars through that method in the last years, the practice is widespread.

He explained that, “according to the information received an average of 60 percent of persons deprived of their liberty in prisons and police stations are in pre-trial detention,” and that some of them had gone without any meaningful investigative or judicial action taken on the part of the prosecuting or adjudicating authorities for periods up to five years.”

As a result of this, he requested authorities apply alternative sanctions to detentions, especially to minimum penalties for non-violent offenses. He also requested them to refrain from introducing new legislation reducing the minimum age for criminal responsibility.

With respect to allegations of torture and ill treatment in prison facilities, Melzer provided the following statements:

“Institutional violence by security forces and prison officials seems to be widespread, and impunity rampant. The forensic expert who accompanied my visit conducted a number of medical examinations of inmates, some of which confirmed physical injuries consistent with the testimonies received.”

“[We] received numerous consistent allegations of police violence during peaceful demonstrations against forced evictions or when trying to submit complaints or requests of any kind to the relevant authorities.”

“In addition to threats and insults, federal and provincial security forces reportedly resorted to kicking and beating, even against persons who were handcuffed or otherwise physically restrained. I also received several allegations concerning the use of suffocation techniques, most notably the so-called “submarine” treatment.”

As a silver lining, Melzer highlighted “the work of local communities and civil society organizations trying to claim their rights and insist on accountability for institutional violence through monitoring, communication and other non-violent means such as ‘La Garganta Poderosa.'”

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Photo via Foto Sur

When speaking about the treatment inmates receive within the prisons, the rapporteur depicted a completely dire picture. Even though he said it is complicated to make a generalized statement, he indicated that inmates “reported having been severely beaten while being shackled to metal beds for several days, or having been held in stress positions in isolation cells for prolonged periods of time.” And that, according to the people he interviewed, “most of these actions go unpunished.”

Furthermore, he indicated that, “the information we received shows a significant gap between the number of complaints filed and the investigations carried out, resulting in a pervasive culture of impunity among security forces and prison staff,” reads the report including his preliminary observations.

Maybe it is exactly because of that why he noted a “perceptible reluctance of victims to speak about ill-treatment, both because of their fear of reprisals and their general distrust in the ability and willingness of the judicial authorities to hear their claims.” That’s why one of his recommendations was to introduce a system of boxes to collect confidential complaints in detention centers and police stations, to which only the external and oversight control mechanisms have access.

Another grave issue the rapporteur delved into were the “dramatic” conditions of detention in which most inmates live. The exponential rise in the prison population during the last 30 years, he said, resulted in a situation of chronic overcrowding throughout the country and, in some provinces, prolonged detention at police stations unfit for that purpose.

“While nationwide official statistics suggest a current occupancy to capacity ratio of approximately 130 percent, the official capacity of detention places appears to be calculated on the basis of available beds rather than available space per inmate, which results in available surface areas as small as 1m2 (one square meter) or less per inmate, in clear contravention to universally applicable Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners [Mandela Rules],” he explained.

Melzer used this statement as a platform to go over what he called the “most difficult” part of his observations. The infrastructure state of provincial police stations and penitentiaries. Because even though he said the conditions in the federal ones “may require certain improvements,” the other ones are “totally incompatible with human dignity and may amount to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Photo via La Prensa
Photo via La Prensa

After recounting the different observations that made him reach the conclusion – “in other cells, water taps were blocked, forcing detainees to drink water from the same toilets they used to urinate and defecate,” mention one of the several grim images – that Argentina has become responsible for widespread, persistent and serious violations of the convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

When asked by The Bubble about the explanations he received from the officials in charge of the facilities that presented such severe deficiencies, Melzer said that, “in general,” everyone is aware of the problem, but “no one has the solution.” He went on to pose the question about whether Argentina “really needs that many people in prison,” and asked “what is the purpose of prison.”

“There is a model that keeps feeding people into a system that is old, insufficient. What happens if you put a non-violent person in prison? They may have committed offenses, but they are not violent. But if they spend so much time in conditions where they have to compete with other convicts for scarce resources, they turn violent. We have to identify the purpose of prison,” he added.

Melzer concluded his statement by noting that even though “the country has come a long way since the dark period of the military dictatorship,” he is under the impression that “part of the oppressive military architecture of the past has survived within the security and prison systems and, under the guise of public security policy, risks to lead the country back down a slippery slope toward a more divided society marked by increasing indifference, arbitrariness, and abuse.”

“In the past three decades, Argentinian society has repeatedly proven to be capable of standing up against violence, torture, and abuse. I appeal to the Argentinian people and authorities to live up to the historical achievements,” he finished.