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Uruguay’s youth detention under scrutiny

Uruguayan President José Mujica
Group of local NGOs tells UN Committee that detained minors are beaten, tortured

MONTEVIDEO — Detained minors in Uruguay’s reformatory institutions suffer abuse, beatings and torture, a group of NGOs claimed before the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva.

The complaint was presented on Monday by Uruguay’s Committee on the Rights of the Child, one of its members, Luis Pedernera, told the AP. The local committee gathers a group of NGOs that have been monitoring the application of the Convention on Children’s Rights in the country since 1991.

“We’ve received numerous testimonies of abuse and torture. We were told about invasive searches and vaginal procedures, practices that international bodies have condemned and equated to rape. Despite criticism, nothing is being done to put an end to such practices. The most common response is to discredit what the teenager is saying,” the report said.

“We also have credible testimonies by teenagers who are suspected of having committed a crime who were subjected to prolonged detentions and torture at police stations. Homeless boys and girls have even claimed they were beaten and tortured,” the document said.

Pedernera said that many minors spend up to 20 hours per day in a cell. “That, added to the abuse and the beatings, amounts to torture, inhumane and cruel treatment,” he said.

The complaint presented on Monday before the UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child adds to others made by reporters and judges in recent months.

The ‘crisis’

According to local newspaper El País, the current “crisis” came to light on April 3, when the National Institution of Human Rights (INDDHH) denounced that overcrowding, long lock-down periods (more than 20 hours a day in many cases), lack of hygiene and abuse were common in correctional institutions for teenagers.

Days later the local Committee for the Rights of the Child ratified the claims made by the INDDHH and called for the resignation of Rubén Villaverde, the head of the Service for Adolescent Penal Responsibility (SIRPA), saying that he wasn’t “the right person” to deal with teenagers.

But Uruguay’s biggest union, Pit-Cnt, came out in support of Villaverde, saying the official “achieved significant” advances in the treatment of detained minors. The union, which declares itself to be politically independent, is seen as close to the ruling Broad Front.

Days later, however, a report by the UN’s Committee against Torture stated that “according to testimonies, the abuse (at reformatory facilities) consists of beatings and cruel and humiliating punishments — including forced nudity, invasive searches and coercion.”

But Uruguay’s Institute for the Child and the Adolescent (INAU) backed Villaverde and praised his “achievements,” including a reduction in the number escapes and the “growing number” of detained minors that study or work outside facilities.

Last week, 10 officials from the Colonia Berro (where several facilities are located) testified as suspects before a penal judge in the department of Pando.

A day later, Villaverde removed the director of the SER detention centre — where many of the claims originated — and sent an official to take control of the institution, in the first sign that he was starting to take criticism more seriously.

‘Delay’

Pedernera, from Uruguay’s Committee for the Rights of the Child, told El País that the measures taken by Villaverde “came with too much delay.”

Last week, a group of legislators from the Lower Chamber’s Population Committee visited Colonia Berro. After the visit, opposition lawmaker Pablo Abdala denounced “grave delays” in the construction of infrastructure for which SIRPA received US$25 million in 2010.

Uruguayan President José Mujica — a former guerrilla member who spent many years in prison — hasn’t commented on the current “crisis.”

The leftist Broad Front, which pushed for the legalization of abortion, same-sex marriage and marijuana, has remained mostly silent regarding the claims of abuse and lawmakers have, instead, praised advances in the reduction of overcrowding in the institutions.

Herald staff with AP, online media

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