From March 31 to April 4, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights celebrated its 50th Special Session at its headquarters in San José, Costa Rica. The Court held public hearings on three pending cases concerning forced disappearance, indigenous land rights, and torture in arbitrary detention. The Court also conducted private deliberations to prepare its judgment in a case concerning the alleged failure to properly investigate a woman’s disappearance and death. [IACtHR Press Release (Spanish)] Video recordings from the public hearings are archived in the Court’s Multimedia Gallery.
Public hearings were held on the following cases: Rochac Hernández et al. v. El Salvador, Kuna Indigenous People of Madungandi and Embera Indigenous People of Bayano and their Members v. Panama, and Espinoza Gonzáles v. Peru. In each case, the Court heard expert or witnesses testimony, the parties’ final arguments, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights‘ final observations. The Court also held private deliberations concerning the case of Véliz Franco et al. v. Guatemala.
Rochac Hernández et al. v. El Salvador
In Rochac Hernández et al. v. El Salvador, the Inter-American Commission found that the victims, five children, were forcibly disappeared between 1980 and 1982. The disappearances occurred in the context of an armed conflict, where the children were allegedly last seen with members of the armed forces. [IACtHR Press Release (Spanish)] To date, the children’s fates remain unknown.
The Commission admitted the petitions in 2006 and in 2008, subsequently consolidated them, and adopted its merits report in 2012. It analyzed whether the State conducted a diligent and serious investigation into the disappearances within a reasonable time, ultimately finding the State responsible for violating the “rights to recognition of juridical personality, to life, to humane treatment, to personal liberty, to family, to special protection for children, and to judicial guarantees and judicial protection,” as set forth in the American Convention on Human Rights. See, e.g., IACHR, Report No. 90/06, Petition 731-03, Rochac Hernández (El Salvador) 21 October 2006; IACHR, Report No. 75/12, Cases 12.577, 12.646, 12.647, 12.667, Rochac Hernández (El Salvador), 7 November 2012, paras. 4, 219–229.
The Commission noted that the State’s failure to investigate the disappearances beyond the preliminary stages was “extremely serious” as the “passage of time helps perpetuate impunity.” See IACHR, Report No. 75/12, Cases 12.577, 12.646, 12.647, 12.667, Rochac Hernández (El Salvador), 7 November 2012, paras. 229–231.
Kuna Indigenous People of Madungandi and Embera Indigenous People of Bayano and their Members v. Panama
From 1972 to 1976, the petitioners, indigenous communities, were allegedly forced to abandon their ancestral land due to the construction of the Bayano Hydroelectric Dam on the land. The petitioners assert that the State failed to provide them with adequate economic compensation, failed to protect against invasions of settlers and illegal logging, and failed to recognize, award title for, and demarcate the territory, instead granting property title to non-indigenous third parties. See IACHR, Report No. 125/12, Case 12.354, Kuna Indigenous People of Madungandi and Embera Indigenous People of Bayano and their Members (Panama), 13 November 2012, paras. 2, 236.
The Commission admitted the petition in 2009, and granted precautionary measures in 2011, asking the State to protect the indigenous communities from invasions and from the destruction of their natural resources until the Commission reached its final decision. See id. at para. 14; IACHR, Report No. 58/09, Petition 12-354, Pueblo Indígena Kuna de Madungandi y Emberá de Bayano y sus Miembros (Panama), 21 April 2009 (Spanish only).
In its decision on the merits, the Commission found that the State had violated the petitioners’ rights to property, judicial protection, a fair trial, and equal protection, as recognized in the American Convention on Human Rights. See IACHR, Report No. 125/12, Kuna Indigenous People of Madungandi and Embera Indigenous People of Bayano and their Members, para. 2. In referring the case to the Inter-American Court, the Commission noted that the Court has the opportunity to “assess the scope and content of the obligation to provide redress to indigenous peoples when . . . it is not possible to return to them the lands and territories they traditionally occupied.” IACHR, Referral Letter, Case No. 12.354, Kuna de Madungandi and Embera de Bayano Indigenous Peoples and their Members (Panama), 26 February 2013.
Espinoza Gonzáles v. Peru
In the case of Espinoza Gonzáles v. Peru, the petitioners alleged that the State illegally and arbitrarily arrested Gladys Carol Espinoza in 1993, and consequently failed to investigate her allegations of torture and sexual abuse while in police custody. See IACHR, Report No. 67/11, Case 11.157, Gladys Carol Espinoza Gonzales (Peru), 31 March 2011, para. 1. The State disputed that Espinoza had been tortured and sexually abused, and alleged that she was arrested for involvement in attacks on commercial establishments in order to collect funds for the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) insurgent group, to which she allegedly belonged. See id. at paras. 9, 27.
The Commission found that Espinoza’s arbitrary arrest and the State’s failure to investigate torture constituted violations of the rights to humane treatment, personal liberty, privacy, a fair trial, and judicial protection, as set forth in the American Convention on Human Rights. The Commission also found that Peru had violated the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women (Belém do Pará) and the Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture. See id. at paras. 162, 220, 235.
The Commission noted the importance of punishing “the widespread and systematic use of torture in police interrogations for the crimes of terrorism and treason against the fatherland.” See IACHR, Referral Letter, Case No. 11.157, Gladys Carol Espinoza Gonzales (Peru), 8 December 2011.
Véliz Franco et al. v. Guatemala
The case of Véliz Franco et al. v. Guatemala involves the alleged failure of the State to properly investigate the disappearance and murder of 15-year-old María Isabel Véliz Franco. See IACHR, Report No. 170/11, Case No. 12.578, María Isabel Véliz Franco et al. (Guatemala), 3 November 2011, paras. 1, 11. The State partially acknowledged its responsibility for the lack of due diligence in the investigation into Franco’s death, agreeing that it had failed to conduct certain forensic tests, had delayed the investigation due to a jurisdictional dispute, and neglected to take measures to secure the presence of a suspect to the murder. See id. at para. 67.
The Commission admitted the petition in 2006, and concluded in 2011 that the State was responsible for violations of the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women (Convention of Belém do Pará), and of the American Convention on Human Rights‘ provisions concerning the rights to life and personal integrity and the rights of the child. See id. at para. 166; IACHR, Report No. 92/06, Petition 95-04, María Isabel Véliz Franco et al. (Guatemala), 21 October 2006 (Spanish only).
The Commission has argued that the case raises important public policy issues, including State responsibility to conduct serious, diligent, and effective investigations into acts of violence and discrimination against women, and State responsibility to establish legislation and public policies to combat discriminatory and violent practices against women. [IACHR Press Release]
The Court held a public hearing in the case in May 2013. María Isabel Véliz Franco’s murder has been described as the first Guatemalan femicide case to reach the Inter-American Court, and advocates hope it will contribute to important changes in policy and practice to address violence against women and impunity in Guatemala. [CEJIL]