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2 June 2006

A group of United Nations human rights experts concluded yesterday a nine-day official visit to Honduras. The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention is mandated to investigate individual cases and systemic causes of arbitrary detention in all UN member states. It has visited Honduras upon invitation of the government of the Central American republic.

The visit took the Working Group to the capital Tegucigalpa, to San Pedro Sula and to the Atlantic Coast city La Ceiba. In each of the cities visited the Working Group met with police officials, judges, prosecutors, lawyers in public defender offices, and civil society groups. The Working Group also visited different categories of detention facilities, including prisons, holding cells at police stations, and centers for juvenile offenders, interviewing hundreds of detainees in private.

The Working Group delegation visiting Honduras was composed of its Chairperson, Ms. Leila Zerrougui, a judge in Algeria, and Ms. Manuela Carmena Castrillo, a Spanish judge. At the press conference in Tegucigalpa marking the conclusion of the visit, the human rights experts stressed the full co-operation of the Government, including unhindered access to all detention facilities and interviews in private with the detainees.

In sharing their first impressions with journalists, the human rights experts recalled that the new criminal procedure code, which entered into force in 2002, has resulted without any doubt in greater transparency of judicial proceedings and a reduction of the delays in the administration of justice. The share of prisoners held without sentence, which in 2002 amounted to 92%, has shrunk to approximately 62% by March 2006.

The experts expressed, however, concern with regard to the discrimination to which the at least 1,800 persons in remand detention under the old criminal procedure code are subjected. They have been deprived of their freedom without being found guilty of a crime for at least four years by now, in some cases identified by the Working Group for more than ten years. The experts noted that, instead of giving priority to the resolution of these cases, the prosecution and the courts were placing them “on the back burner”. They added that among the pre-trial detainees held under the old criminal procedure code there are persons acquitted by the first instance court, who continue to be detained because the prosecution has appealed the acquittal. “Their detention is doubly arbitrary”, the UN experts concluded.

The experts further stated that the police have excessive power in the criminal justice system. Prosecutors exercise only weak control over the investigative police. As the police also run the prison system, they exercise physical control over all persons in detention at all stages, and not only during the first 24 hours while they are in the holding cells of police stations. The experts noted that “whether or not the police act in conformity with the law and in good faith, this situation seriously jeopardizes the integrity of the criminal process, which requires effective checks and balances.”

The Working Group delegation also told reporters that it had found a number of cases in which the maximum length of detention on remand appeared to have been exceeded. The experts remarked that “many judges and prosecutors appear to have to a great extent abdicated from their mandate to exercise control over the legality of detention.”

The experts finally spoke about their concerns regarding the Government’s strategy to fight the violent youth gangs, known as pandillas and maras. The Working Group delegation observed that the Government appears to rely nearly exclusively on repression and marginalization, as well as occasionally on unlawful means, making no efforts aimed at the reintegration into society of the thousands of adolescents and young adults belonging to these groups.

As a result of the visit, the Working Group will write a report analysing the compliance by Honduras with international law in the area of deprivation of liberty and making recommendations to avoid arbitrary detention. Recalling that she had been assured by Government officials that they are aware of the problems and committed to continuing and strengthening the reform process, Ms. Zerrougui stated that “the Working Group is encouraged by these assurances and hopes that the Government will be able to address some of the concerns expressed already before it adopts its final report on the visit at the beginning of September.”

The full Spanish text of the statement delivered to journalists by the Working Group delegation is available here.