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UN Special Rapporteur on torture concludes mission to Uruguay

27 March 2009

Following his mission to Uruguay from 22 to 27 March 2009, the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Manfred Nowak, issued the following statement:

MONTEVIDEO: “At the outset, I would like to express my appreciation for the excellent cooperation extended to me by the Government of Uruguay. During the visit I enjoyed complete access to all places of detention, including unannounced and unimpeded access, private interviews with detainees, and access to documentation. I would also like to express my gratitude to the United Nations Resident Coordinator, his team and the UN Agencies for their excellent assistance before and throughout the mission.

Torture and ill-treatment

I received few allegations of torture in police stations that could be proven beyond reasonable doubt by forensic examinations and other means of evidence. However, I did receive numerous credible allegations of ill-treatment and excessive use of force in prisons, police stations and juvenile detention centers.

Conditions of detention

a) Police stations

The conditions of detention in some of the police stations I visited were poor. The cells were dark, humid and filthy, and some were in a deplorable state. However, I was encouraged by the fact that police custody is safeguarded by habeas corpus, and that people are brought before a judge within 24 or a maximum of 48 hours, making their stays at police stations of short duration.

b) Prisons

The conditions of detention have been steadily worsening during the past few years. These concerns have been repeatedly raised by the Parliamentary Commissioner on Penitentiaries, and even acknowledged by the Government in 2005 when it declared a state of humanitarian emergency in the country’s prisons. There is an urgent need to take action against such large-scale human rights violations.

During the military dictatorship, Libertad Penitentiary became an infamous symbol for torture and ill-treatment. Two decades later, it is renowned for its subhuman conditions. In particular, the conditions in the steel modules (Las Latas), are an insult to the dignity of the prisoners as well as the guards who have to work there and put their health at risk. These accommodation facilities, where convicted prisoners and pre-trial detainees are held together like animals in metal boxes for almost 24 hours a day, were appalling. Because of the restricted access to water, these individuals are often forced to drink the water from the toilet, and therefore, use plastic bottles or bags to relieve themselves. They also have limited access to medical care, forcing many detainees to cut themselves in order to be taken to a doctor.

In some modules of ComCar, which house five times more prisoners than its capacity, the detainees are held in deplorable conditions as well, with overcrowded cells lacking appropriate sanitation and places to sleep. In addition, the situation regarding inter-prisoner violence is alarming with already three persons killed within the facilities in 2009.

The fairly liberal system of family visits is unfortunately undermined by the fact that visitors, including women and children, are subjected to very intrusive inspections, including body cavity searches when they visit their family members in prison, violating their human dignity as well.

In clear contradiction to international legal norms, there is no separation whatsoever of pre-trial detainees from convicted prisoners. Furthermore, considerable delays in the judicial system lead to a situation where roughly two-thirds of all those in prison are pre-trial detainees. In view of the rising levels of crime, this percentage is likely to increase in the coming years. Taken together, these factors render completely meaningless the principle of presumption of innocence and deprivation of liberty as an exception as stipulated in international law. With Law 17.897, on the Humanization of the Prison System, the Government has taken an important step. Still, much more fundamental changes to the criminal justice system are necessary in order to prevent the entire prison system from collapsing.

In the different places of detention, I witnessed immense disparities between conditions. The separation and categorization of prisoners, including the rights to which they may be entitled, seems to be determined by the detainees’ economic and social status.

Many, if not all, of the problems faced by the penitentiary system and the juvenile justice system are a direct result of the lack of a comprehensive criminal or penitentiary policy. Prisoners have hardly any opportunities for rehabilitation and preparation for reinsertion into society. In some cases, they are only allowed outside their cells for two hours per week. This lack of activities, coupled with the conditions of detention, perpetuate the problem and lead to higher criminality.

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

c) Juveniles

Deprivation of liberty is used as a first, rather than last resort when dealing with adolescents. Juveniles detained in maximum security are living in extremely poor conditions. Mostly, there are no opportunities for education, work or rehabilitation, and the boys are locked up for up to 22 hours a day. The sanitary conditions in the centers I visited were terrible. The juveniles do not have toilets in their cells, and sometimes have to wait for hours for an official to let them go to the toilet. Thus, they relieve themselves in bottles and plastic bags, which they throw out of the window, resulting in a repulsive odor all around the facility. A large number of juveniles in detention are either drug users or drug addicts. Many boys receive sedatives to substitute the drugs. During riots and rebellions, beatings and collective punishments are allegedly fairly common.

d) Psychiatric institutions

I received quite a favorable impression of the two psychiatric institutions I visited, Hospital Vilardebó and Colonia Etchepare, although much remains to be done in terms of infrastructure, to ensure that persons with mental disabilities enjoy the right to be treated humanely.


The prison capacities for women are also severely strained. However, I can report that female prisoners are provided with considerably better facilities and a more liberal regime. Nevertheless, the existing facilities are by no means adequate to house children who stay with their detained mothers.

I welcome the National Plan to Fight Domestic Violence, and encourage the Government to implement it fully. However, I am concerned about the high number of reported cases of domestic violence in the country, some even occurring after precautionary measures are imposed by the judiciary. I call on the Government to ensure that the judiciary is trained to deal with cases of domestic violence, without subjecting women to a re-victimization when filing a complaint.

Criminalization and prevention of torture

Law 18.026 on the cooperation with the International Criminal Court is a positive step towards bringing crimes against humanity to justice in the future. However, the law is highly unlikely to be applied to individual crimes, as reflected by experience of the last two years since it entered into force. Nevertheless, it should serve as an inspiration for the criminal code reform, where torture should be included as an autonomous crime, in accordance with the definition contained in the UN Convention against Torture. In fact, this is a precondition to fight the impunity of torturers.

Regarding the prevention of torture, I wish to applaud the Government for the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and the recent adoption of a law establishing a National Human Rights Commission, including a national mechanism for the prevention of torture. I hope that the new institution will build on the work and expertise of the existing mechanism of the Parliamentary Commissioner on Penitentiaries. The Commissioner’s current mandate should be extended to cover all places of detention and the mechanism should be provided sufficient resources to fulfill this important task.

Dealing with the past
The Government has made positive efforts to address the crimes committed in the dictatorship. I encourage the Government to ensure that these crimes are brought to justice, that justice be served within a reasonable time, and that the memory of the disappeared and killed is preserved.

Preliminary recommendationsThe invitation of the Government of Uruguay extended to me is an example of its willingness to open itself up to independent and objective scrutiny. In this sense, I am encouraged to hear the eagerness of the Government to reform the administration of justice.

In particular, I recommend the Government to:
- Undertake a fundamental reform of the criminal justice system aimed at the prevention of crime and the resocialization of offenders, rather than punitive measures and a policy of simply locking suspected and convicted criminals away from society;
- Create a Ministry of Justice, responsible for the penitentiary system and encompassed in a comprehensive reform of the criminal justice and penitentiary policy;
- Increase the use of non-custodial measures as a means to reduce the overcrowding of prisons;
- Separate pre-trial detainees from convicted prisoners;
- Limit the maximum time of deprivation of liberty for pre-trial detainees;
- Provide prisoners with basic necessities, such as water and adequate food, health care, more work opportunities, education and recreational activities;
- Create adequate facilities for imprisoned mothers and their children;
- Criminalize torture in full accordance with the definition contained in article 1 of the UN Convention against Torture;
- Establish an accessible and effective complaint mechanism for victims of torture and ill-treatment;
- Effectively investigate every suspected case of torture and ill-treatment and bring the perpetrators of torture to justice;
- Broaden the mandate of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Penitentiary System to cover all places of detention and ensure that this National Preventive Mechanism is fully integrated into the National Human Rights Commission to be established in the near future.

Furthermore, the Special Rapporteur invites the international community, including the United Nations system, to support the Government of Uruguay in the implementation of these recommendations.

Appendix: Meetings and Locations Visited
(a) Meetings

The Special Rapporteur held meetings with:
o H. E. Mr. Rodolfo Nin Novoa, Vice President of Uruguay and President of Parliament
o H. E. Amb. Dr. Pedro Vaz, Interim Minister for Foreign Affairs
o H. E. Ms. Daisy Tourné, Minister of Interior
o H. E. Mr. José Bayardi, Minister of National Defense
o H. E. Ms. María Simon, Minister of Education and Culture
o H. E. Ms. María Julia Muñoz, Minister of Public Health
o H. E. Mr. Jorge T. Larrieux, President of the Supreme Court of Justice
o H. E. Mr. Rafael Ubiria, Public Prosecutor and Attorney General
o H. E. Ms. Nora Castro, President of the National Institute for Children and Adolescents
o H. E. Mr. Alvaro Garcé, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Penitentiary System
o H. E. Mr. Felipe Michelini, Deputy Minister of Education and Culture
o H. E. Mr. Ricardo Bernal, Deputy Minister of Interior
o H. E. Mr. Sidney Ribeiro, Director of the National Police
o Ms. María Elena Martínez, Director of Human Rights, Ministry of Education and Culture
o Ms. Reneé del Castillo, Director of the Mental Health Programme, Ministry of Public Health

The Special Rapporteur also met with members of Parliament and civil society representatives. In addition, he held meetings with the United Nations country team and the diplomatic community.

(b) Locations visited
o Santiago Vazquez Prison (Comcar)
o Libertad Penitentiary
o Central Prison, Montevideo (twice)
o Women’s Pavillion, Departmental Prison of Canelones
o Las Piedras and SER Homes, Colonia Berro for Juveniles
o Centre for Arrivals and Referrals Puertas
o Police Headquarters, Montevideo (twice)
o Police Station, Seccional 1
o Police Station, Seccional 15, La Unión
o Vilardebó Psychiatric Hospital
o Dr. B. Etchepare and Santin Carlos Rossi Colonies for Psychiatric Care

Information Note
Mr. Nowak was appointed Special Rapporteur on 1 December 2004 by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. As Special Rapporteur, he is independent from any government and serves in his individual capacity. The Commission first decided to appoint a special rapporteur to examine questions relevant to torture in 1985. The mandate, since renewed under the UN Human Rights Council, covers all countries, whether or not they have ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.Mr. Nowak has previously served as member of the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances; the UN expert on missing persons in the former Yugoslavia; the UN expert on legal questions on enforced disappearances; and as a judge at the Human Rights Chamber for Bosnia and Herzegovina. He is Professor of Constitutional Law and Human Rights at the University of Vienna, and Director of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights.For further information on the mandate of the Special Rapporteur, please visit the website: http://www.ohchr.org/english/issues/torture/rapporteur/index.htm