Highlights of Amnesty International Report 2002
Covering events from January to December 2001
Although the year has seen some positive developments -- especially regarding the struggle against impunity and the use of the death penalty -- the international climate created by the "war on terrorism" declared by President Bush after the 11 September attacks in the USA posed a serious threat to human rights advances region wide.
The 11 September attacks were followed by intense backlash against Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent in the USA. Arrests also took place in countries including Paraguay and the Dominican Republic.
In the USA, more than 1,200 people -- mainly non-US nationals -- were detained during investigations into the attacks. The detentions were surrounded by extreme secrecy and there have been reports of incommunicado detention and ill- treatment. Human rights concerns raised by the sweeping "anti-terrorism" legislation passed by Congress were compounded by the establishment by Presidential military order of special military commissions for the trial of non US-nationals suspected of "terrorism". These courts would create a "second class justice system" for foreign nationals as they would expressly flout some of the basic guarantees prevailing in the US justice system.
In December, Canada also passed new anti-terrorism legislation amidst fears that it might undermine the right to a fair trial. New Immigration and Refugee legislation adopted in November could result in people being returned to countries where they may face human rights violations.
Meanwhile, the human rights crisis in Colombia continued to spiral and it is feared that the post-11 September climate will contribute to exacerbate it. Both the army, with their paramilitary allies, and armed opposition groups continued to commit grave human rights violations and abuses, with civilians the principal victims. The year's statistics are chilling: over 300 people "disappeared", more than 4,000 civilians were killed outside combat -- the majority by army-backed paramilitaries -- large numbers of people were displaced and over 1,700 people were kidnapped, mainly by guerrilla groups.
As in previous years, torture and ill-treatment by security forces and in custody continued to be reported in at least 20 countries, including Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guyana, Jamaica, Paraguay, Peru, the USA and Venezuela. In countries like Brazil and Mexico the use of torture to extract confessions is often used as a de facto replacement for modern investigation techniques.
Unlawful killings by law enforcement agents -- often as a result of excessive use of lethal force -- were recorded in several countries, including Belize, Bolivia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guyana, Mexico, the USA and Venezuela. In Brazil, death squads appear to operate in collusion with security forces, and some 481 police killings were reported in São Paulo state alone. In Jamaica, at least 152 people were killed by security forces, include seven young men killed in a house in Braeton in circumstances strongly suggesting extrajudicial executions. In Argentina, dozens of police killings in disputed circumstances were reported and over 30 people were killed during demonstrations at the end of the year, amidst reports of excessive use of force.
"Disappearances" continued to be widespread in Colombia. Cases were also reported Mexico and Venezuela, and in at least eight other countries families and friends continued living the daily torture of not knowing what happened to their "disappeared" loved ones.
"Prisoners of conscience" were still detained in Argentina, Cuba and Mexicoas well as in Peru, where approximately 200 people injustly convicted of "terrorism" charges are still in prison. 2001 saw the release of two Mexican "prisoners of conscience", environmental activists Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera. However, these releases fell short of full justice as their innocence was not acknowledged and no investigation was opened into their claims of having been tortured.
Defending and promoting human rights proved once again to be a life-threatening pursuit, with human rights defenders and activists being the target of harassment, threats and attacks -- sometimes fatal -- in countries including Colombia, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaicaand Nicaragua. In Mexico, human rights lawyer Digna Ochoa y Plácido was killed in her office in October. In Colombia, over 100 trade unionist were killed -- mainly by army-backed paramilitaries -- and 10 journalists were the target of fatal attacks because of their work. Journalists were also threatened and harassed in Guatemala, Mexico and Haiti, where at least one was killed. Government political opponents were targeted in countries including Cuba and Haiti.
The USA was the only country in the region to carry out executions, including the first two federal executions since 1963. The 66 people put to death in the USA included some with mental impairment and one prisoner who was under 18 at the time of the crime. In a landmark ruling the International Court of Justice found the USA had breached its international obligations by denying German citizens Karl and Walter LaGrand -- executed in 1999 -- their right to communicate with their consulate. Death sentences continued being passed in all the region's retentionist countries, but a halt in executions in Cuba indicated that an informal moratorium is in place.
Although past and present human rights violations continue to go largely unchecked, some advances have been recorded in the struggle against impunity. In March in Argentina, a judge investigating the "disappearance" of three people in 1978, ruled the country's two "amnesty" laws unconstitutional and void. In June and July, an Argentinian federal judge requested the arrest of a number of military officials from Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay for their involvement in "Operation Condor" -a region wide plan characterized by systematic "disappearances".
In a historic ruling in Brazil, a former high-ranking military police officer was convicted on charges related to the 1992 massacre of 111 inmates in Carandiru prison, São Paulo. In the state of Amazonas, 13 men -- several of whom were tried in absentia -- were convicted of ordering and carrying out an attack on around 100 Ticuna Indians, which left 14 dead including 6 children.
In Guatemala, while efforts to bring to justice the perpetrators of mass human rights violations in the past continued in the country and abroad, three armed forces officers were sentenced to 30 years' imprisonment for the 1998 murder of Bishop José Gerardi. However, justice came at a price: at least nine witnesses were killed, dozens of other witnesses, lawyers, judges and prosecutors involved in the case were threatened and harassed, and many were forced to flee the country.
In Peru, a Truth Commission was established to clarify human rights violations committed between 1980 and 2000. The former head of the Peruvian Security Services Vladimiro Montesinos, accused of human rights violations, was arrested in Venezuela in June.
In Chile, former President Augusto Pinochet was put under house arrest on charges of "kidnapping and/or aggravated homicide" committed against 75 people during the "Caravan of Death" military operation in 1973. The house arrest was later lifted when charges were reduced to "covering up" the crimes rather than perpetrating them. The Santiago Appeals Court temporarily suspended the case against him on health grounds, but the case is still pending following legal action filed by prosecution lawyers.
HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS IN THE
AMERICAS DETAILED IN AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL'S
ANNUAL REPORT 2002
Confirmed or possible extrajudicial executions were carried out in 12 countries in the region in 2001.
People "disappeared" in at least 3 countries and remained "disappeared" from previous years in at least another 8 countries.
TORTURE AND ILL-TREATMENT
People were reportedly tortured or ill-treated by security forces, police or other state authorities in 20 countries.
PRISONERS OF CONSCIENCE
Confirmed or possible prisoners of conscience were held in 3 countries.
DETENTION WITHOUT CHARGE OR TRIAL
People were arbitrarily arrested and detained, or in detention without charge or trial in 6 countries.
HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES BY ARMED OPPOSITION GROUPS
Armed opposition groups committed serious human rights abuses, such as deliberate and arbitrary killings of civilians, torture and hostage-taking in 2 countries.
People were sentenced to death in 8 countries and 66 executions took place in one country only.
Selected events in the Americas from January to April 2002
Action taken by the USA in the context of the "war on terrorism" and efforts to identify and bring to justice those responsible for the 11 September 2001 attacks gave rise to serious human rights concerns. From early January, people detained in Afghanistan, Pakistan and as far away from the military conflict zone as Bosnia-Herzegovina, began to be transferred to Camp X-Ray at the US Navy Base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. There, they were kept in a "legal limbo" in which they were denied "prisoner of war" status under the Geneva Conventions and did not enjoy the internationally recognized rights of criminal suspects. In April, Amnesty International challenged the US authorities to bring their actions in line with international law and standards. Amnesty International received no reply to its requests for access to the Guantanamo detainees.
In February, Amnesty International delegates toured two of the detention facilities housing post-11 September detainees in New Jersey, but were denied permission to visit the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in New York. The organization found that, six months on from the 11 September attacks, a significant number of people detained in the aftermath of the attacks for alleged immigration violations continued to be deprived of some basic rights under international law.
In March, the operating guidelines for the military commissions established by Presidential Military Order confirmed fears that they would deliver "second-class justice" to selected foreign nationals who would have no right of appeal to a higher court established by law and could be sentenced -- including to death -- on the basis of evidence of a lower standard than normally accepted in US courts. Amnesty International issued a detailed critique of the military commissions, and reiterated its call for the Military Order to be revoked.
In Colombia, peace talks between the government and the country's largest guerrilla group, the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), broke down in February, sparking fears of a further escalation of the conflict and of the country's humanitarian and human rights tragedy. Presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt was kidnapped by the FARC in February and the pre-electoral period has been marred by threats, intimidations and violence against candidates and political activists by all armed groups. In April, 12 politicians were abducted in Cali, allegedly also by the FARC.
In Argentina, the year began with political instability and more demonstrations against the government's economic plans. In February, Amnesty International met the new administration to discuss human rights concerns and insisted that the Argentinian authorities uphold the rights enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to which Argentina is a party.
In April, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was briefly overthrown by a sector of the military following an anti-government demonstration in Caracas. During the 48 hours of political turmoil, at least 45 people were killed and over 100 were wounded. After protests led to the return to power of the constitutionally elected President and his government, Amnesty International urged the authorities to uphold human rights and other constitutional guarantees and called for prompt and impartial investigations into all human rights violations committed during the crisis.
Positive developments include the first hearing of Peru's Truth Commission in April and a decision by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council ruling that the mandatory death penalty unconstitutional in seven Caribbean nations. This ruling could pave the way for a restriction of the use of the death penalty in English-speaking Caribbean countries.
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