GENEVA (21 March 2016) – Defining a crime as enforced disappearance does not depend on how long a person is detained without their whereabouts being divulged, UN experts have stressed after examining the case of a prisoner in Argentina whose family was denied any information about where he was for several days.
“For more than seven days, the prisoner could not communicate with his family nor consult a lawyer, and for seven days the authorities concealed or refused to acknowledge where he had been transferred to despite repeated requests from his relatives. This constitutes an enforced disappearance,” said Juan José Lopez Ortega from the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED).
The prisoner, Roberto Yrusta, had asked to be transferred from a prison in Cordoba, saying he had been tortured and ill-treated for three years. On 16 January 2013, Mr. Yrusta was moved to a prison in Santa Fe province; yet neither he nor his sisters were told his destination. In addition, prison records did not register him correctly, and did not make clear who ordered his transfer, nor when it took place.
“The Committee’s opinion is that an enforced disappearance doesn’t have to begin with arbitrary or illegal detention, nor be the intention of the officials involved, but that the legal detention of a person can become illegal and, as in this case, an enforced disappearance,” said CED member Santiago Corcuera. “For detention to be secret, it doesn’t need to be at a clandestine centre, but can happen at official prisons, if the authorities do not provide information on where the detained person is.”
Once Mr. Yrusta was able to get in touch with his family again, he told them he was still being ill-treated. On 7 February 2013, some 10 months before his scheduled release, he was found dead in his cell. His sisters submitted a complaint to the Argentine authorities, seeking clarification over the circumstances of his disappearance during the seven days in question and his death, as well as the inhuman and degrading treatment he had alleged.
Under the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, to which Argentina is a party, victims are not just the person who is disappeared but those who have suffered harm as a direct result including, in this case, Mr Yrusta’s sisters. Despite this, the Argentine authorities did not recognise the sisters as victims and allow them to participate in their brother’s case, so violating the Convention. “The Committee considers that the [sisters’] anguish and suffering over the lack of information about what happened to their brother was aggravated by the failure of the authorities to recognise their status as victims, a factor which led to their being re-victimised,” the 10-member Committee wrote in its opinion.
Among their recommendations, Committee members said the investigation should not be limited to the cause of Mr Yrusta’s death but should include an exhaustive and impartial investigation into his disappearance during his transfer from Cordoba to Santa Fe. Those responsible for violations should be prosecuted, tried and punished.
“Each victim has the right to know the truth about the circumstances of an enforced disappearance, the evolution and results of the investigation, and the fate of the disappeared person,” members wrote in their findings.
“We hope the Committee’s jurisprudence arising from this case clarifies what constitutes enforced disappearance, so contributing to the protection of all from this abominable crime,” said Emmanuel Decaux, Chairperson of the CED.
The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance marks its 10th anniversary in 2016. The Convention was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 20 December 2006 and came into force on 23 December 2010.