El Salvador: 'Extremely alarming' rise in torture and abuse leaves marginalised communities living in fear - new report

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Rise in systematic detentions; forced disappearances and torture since introduction of state of emergency in 2022              

State violence gradually replacing gang violence in poverty-stricken communities

Crackdown on freedom of expression places journalists and activists in danger

‘Vulnerable communities are trapped in an endless cycle of abuse and despair’ - Ana Piquer

El Salvador is experiencing an alarming regression in the respect for and protection of human rights, Amnesty International said in a new report published today (5 December).                                                                                                                                  

Based on three research missions and over 80 interviews, Behind the veil of popularity: Repression and regression of human rights in El Salvador documents an increasingly repressive public security apparatus; the systematic use of torture and other abuse against prisoners; the dismantling of legal protections that threaten due process; and a crackdown on freedom of expression. 

Since the introduction of a state of emergency in March 2022, the Salvadoran authorities have restricted and violated fundamental rights, including the right to life and prohibition against torture. The report finds this has led to a pattern of massive arbitrary detentions; forced disappearances; torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment against detainees; and the deaths of 190 individuals while in state custody – some as a result of torture or other ill-treatment.

Amnesty identified three alarming characteristics of this situation: 1) the massive number of human rights violations being committed; 2) the high degree of state coordination in the design and implementation of this measure; and 3) a state response that tends to conceal and minimise these actions, refusing to recognise and diligently investigate the abuses.

The Salvadoran authorities have adopted a systematic policy of torture towards all those detained under the state of emergency on suspicion of being gang members. Among the gravest consequences are deaths in state custody, some of which show evident signs of violence, while many others are the result of inhumane conditions of imprisonment or denial of medical care and medicine.

As of October 2023, local victims' movements and human rights organisations had recorded more than 73,800 detentions, 327 cases of forced disappearances, approximately 102,000 people imprisoned – making El Salvador the country with the world’s highest incarceration rate – a rate of prison overcrowding of approximately 236%, and more than 190 deaths in state custody.

According to the analysis of civil society organisations’ databases, to which Amnesty had access, the victims of arbitrary detentions share three socioeconomic traits: low educational levels; precarious employment; and residence in areas stigmatised by poverty or gang control.

In light of these incidents, Amnesty warns of the gradual replacement of gang violence with state violence, whose principal victims continue to be poverty-stricken communities that have historically been ravaged by crime. The most vulnerable communities now live in fear of being victims of the arbitrariness and abuses inflicted by the authorities.

Ana Piquer, Amnesty International’s Americas Director, said:

“The deterioration in the guarantee of human rights in El Salvador in recent years that we have documented is extremely alarming. The adoption of a focus on highly repressive security and weakening of the rule of law have led the country into one of its worse crises since the end of the internal armed conflict.

“This pattern of systematic, extended abuse primarily affects marginalised and impoverished communities. What we are witnessing in El Salvador is a tragic repetition of history, where state violence is gradually replacing gang violence, leaving the same vulnerable communities trapped in an endless cycle of abuse and despair.”

Sledgehammer to legal protections

The report warns of dangers to human rights of permanent legal reforms that have been approved under the pretext of facilitating the state of emergency. The principal changes include the concealment of the identity of judges; automatic pretrial detention for crimes linked to gangs, the elimination of time limits for pretrial detention for crimes associated with terrorist or illegal groups. The latter’s use is enabled for an indefinite period and threatens the right to be tried or released within a reasonable period.

Even if legislators decide not to extend the state of emergency, the risk of the human rights crisis worsening will persist if the reforms that undermine due process protections are not reversed.

Crackdown on civic space

The report highlights how freedom of expression and association have increasingly come under attack since the state of emergency was introduced The Salvadoran authorities' crackdown has also restricted the right to peaceful assembly, participation in public matters, and access to public information.

The main tactics used by the authorities include: 1) stigmatising the work of defending and promoting human rights and transparency; 2) harassment of journalists and any form of dissent or criticism; 3) concealment and manipulation of public information; 4) the use of vague criminal definitions that can place human rights defenders and/or journalists at risk; 5) appeals by state institutions, for reasons of public order or national security, to violate or hinder the enjoyment of human rights; and 6) weaponisation of the powers of some governmental ministries and application of excessive controls over the media and civil society organisations.

The principal targets have been human rights defenders, independent media outlets and journalists, civil society organisations, labour unionists, and justice officials who have demonstrated independence and adherence to the principles of legality and respect for the rule of law.

This has created an environment of misinformation and the promotion of discrimination, hostility, and violence by the state in response to mere criticism and dissent. This has led to self-censorship and self-exile among those who, as victims of human rights violations, have found that state institutions do not guarantee their protection.

Amnesty urges the Salvadoran authorities to put an end to repressive security policies. This includes halting human rights violations resulting from the application of the state of emergency and repealing the legal reforms that violate due process and nullify judicial guarantees.

Under international human rights law, any measure taken in exceptional situations that threaten the independence or security of the state must be strictly limited to the needs of the situation and respect the principle of non-discrimination.

Fundamental rights such as the right to life; prohibition against torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; and the right to freedom and personal security are inalienable and can never be suspended, even in exceptional situations.

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