IACHR Takes Dominican Republic to the Inter-American Court in Guayabín Massacre Case

National Palace, Dominican Republic

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights announced last week that it has filed an application with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the case of Nadege Dorzema et al. v. Dominican Republic (Case No. 12.688). The case centers around the June 17, 2000 deaths and detention of a group of Haitians and one Dominican citizen at the hands of Dominican armed forces when the truck they were riding in failed to stop at an army checkpoint.

In their 2005 petition, two NGOs that work with Haitians in the Dominican Republic(Grupo de Apoyo a los Repatriados y Refugiados and Centro Cultural Domínico Haitiano) alleged that Dominican authorities had arbitrarily killed seven individuals and failed to ensure the humane treatment of another twelve individuals, in addition to violating some of the alleged victims’ rights to freedom from arbitrary detention, fair trial and judicial protection under the American Convention on Human Rights (articles 4, 5, 7, 8, 24 and 25, in connection with article 1.1). The IACHR issued its admissibility decision in the case on December 22, 2008. In the words of the Commission, the petitioners alleged that, after the victims had crossed from Haiti into the Dominican Republic:

…the members of the [army] gave a signal to stop the truck, but the driver of the vehicle was not aware of it and had continued on. They say that as a result, the soldiers began pursuing the truck for 17 kilometers, opening fire indiscriminately on it with official M16 rifles. They say that according to statements by witnesses, the soldiers who were pursuing the truck could see that there were people inside of it. They add that later on, the vehicle overturned on a curve some five kilometers from the town of “El Copey,” as a result of the death of the driver from bullet wounds. According to the petitioners, the Dominican military forces continued to shoot at the alleged victims, who, terrified, were trying to run away from the place. Thus they argue that this amounted to an extrajudicial execution, at least in the cases of Nadege Dorzema and Pardis Fortilus.

Admissibility Decision, para. 10.

Subsequently, the survivors were allegedly transferred to detention centers without explanation and held without any attempt to determine their immigration status, before being deported.

The ensuing investigation into the deaths led to several soldiers being charged with voluntary homicide before the military courts, but – as civilians – Dominican law prohibited the victims and their families from attending or participating in the proceedings. Id. paras. 13-15. Three of the four soldiers indicted were convicted by the military court of first instance (two were sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and one to 30 days’ suspension), but the convictions of the two sentenced to prison were overturned on appeal in 2005. Id., paras. 17, 38.

In 2002, the victims had sought civilian prosecution of the soldiers, but it was not until 2007, two years after their petition to the IACHR, that the conflict of jurisdiction between civilian and military courts was resolved in favor of military prosecution of the soldiers. Id., paras. 16-17.

As summarized in the IACHR’s press release:

The case also involves the fact that some of the victims who survived suffered a violation to their personal liberty and violations to their right to a fair trial and their right to judicial protection, given that they were expelled from the Dominican Republic without having received due guarantees based on their status as migrants. Finally, the case falls within a context of structural discrimination against Haitians or persons of Haitian origin at the hands of Dominican agents.

The petitioners contended that they were excused from exhausting domestic remedies because judicial remedies were not available to them. The IACHR concurred that Article 46.2.a applied “because due legal process to protect the right or rights allegedly violated did not exist in the domestic legislation of the Dominican Republic”, in that the victims were denied access to the military jurisdiction. Admissibility Decision, para 43. The Commission further determined that the petition was presented within a “reasonable period of time” given the few months’ time between the decisions resolving the jurisdictional conflict and the complaint before the IACHR. Id., par. 47.

When published online, the IACHR’s application to the Court will be available for download here. The Guayabín Massacre case is the second case against the Dominican Republic to be referred to the Court in the past six months (the first involving the forced disappearance of opposition leader Narciso Gonzalez Medina in 1994). The Commission published no decisions pertaining to the Dominican Republic in 2010.   Less than 1% of the petitions the IACHR receives annually are against the Dominican Republic.  See the statistics sections of the Commission’s annual reports for 2009 and 2008.

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