Arbitrary deprivation of liberty for political reasons: “a growing phenomenon in the Americas”


Washington D.C., October 5, 2022- “There is no country that is not challenged by the existence of arbitrary detentions”, were the words of Claudia Samayoa, vice-president of the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT), who referred to this problem during the event “Not One More Day in Detention: Freedom for Persons Deprived of Liberty for Political […]

Washington D.C., October 5, 2022- “There is no country that is not challenged by the existence of arbitrary detentions”, were the words of Claudia Samayoa, vice-president of the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT), who referred to this problem during the event “Not One More Day in Detention: Freedom for Persons Deprived of Liberty for Political Reasons in the Americas”, organized by the International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights (Race and Equality) within the framework of the 52nd General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS), in Lima, Peru.

Samayoa recalled three of the five categories established by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to determine that a person is a victim of this practice: 

  1. The absence of a legal basis for detention.
  2. Detention as a result of the exercise of fundamental rights or freedoms.
  3. Failure to comply, in whole or in part, with the international standards relating to the right to a fair trial set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Samayoa also highlighted that arbitrary detentions that occur to deprive rights are commonly associated with torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and affect many groups of people: human rights defenders, journalists, members of opposition political parties, demonstrators and participants in peaceful protests, leaders of indigenous peoples, among others.

“Nicaragua is where they have (detained) everyone: from a feminist, a priest, a student or someone who wanted to participate in the Blue and White Movement (Nicaraguan political organization), a policeman who refused to comply with orders. This is an expression of authoritarianism,” expressed Samayoa. 

The OMCT Vice-President categorized different countries into three groups depending on the type of arbitrary detentions they commit. She identified Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia, Peru, Brazil, and Chile as “suffering” from the phenomenon of criminalization of human rights defenders, organizations, and communities. 

Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Cuba are in the category of countries that arbitrarily detain journalists and people exercising their right to demonstrate or freedom of expression. 

In a third category of countries Samayoa identified those that arbitrarily detain opposition politicians who are considered enemies of the State. In this list she placed Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

All this allows us to understand the phenomenon of arbitrary deprivation of liberty for political reasons in the Americas, and in order to measure the effects on their populations, Race and Equality invited relatives and advocates of people facing this reality in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela who gave their testimonies at the event mentioned above.

States Must Guarantee the Right to Defend Human Rights 

Commissioner Joel Hernández, Rapporteur on the Rights of Human Rights Defenders and Justice Operators of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), recalled the obligations of States to protect and prevent attacks against those who defend human rights in their countries. Considering that, among those deprived of liberty for political reasons, there are always human rights defenders who are victims of state repression. 

“There are several obligations, inherent, for the State, such as the duty to prevent attacks on the work of defending human rights, the duty to protect human rights defenders, and also the duty to investigate and punish any attack that arises against human rights defenders,” said Hernandez.

“The history of political prisoners in Cuba is horrendous”.

Miriam Cardet, sister of former political prisoner and leader of the Christian Liberation Movement of Cuba, Dr. Eduardo Cardet, recalled that her brother became a political prisoner in 2016 when he returned from a trip from the United States and was intercepted by state agents in civilian clothes who beat him and took him away, only to release him three years later after a trial without guarantees of due process and an unfair sentence against him.

“The history of political prisoners in Cuba is horrendous and long-standing. It goes back to 1959, uninterruptedly since the Castro brothers (Fidel and Raúl Castro) assumed power, with significant waves (of detentions) in the 1960s and 1970s,” Cardet contextualized.

Since the historic protests of July 11, 2021, when citizens came out to peacefully demonstrate against the critical socio-economic and human rights situation on the island, human rights organizations such as Justicia 11J and Cubalex have registered at least 1,514 arbitrary detentions and report that there are currently 665 people deprived of liberty for participating in those protests. Since then, the situation has only worsened, said Cardet. 

Despite the violent repression against the Cuban people since July 11, the impact of Hurricane Ian, which caused a lack of access to electricity and aggravated the conditions of poverty of many people, is generating new demonstrations in Cuba, whose inhabitants demand “freedom”, to which the Cuban authorities have responded with more repression. 

“My mom has only been able to see Lesther ten times in 15 months.”

In Nicaragua there are more than 205 people deprived of liberty for political reasons -195 of them after the peaceful demonstrations of April 2018 and 10 before that date, according to the Mechanism for the Recognition of Political Prisoners of Nicaragua.

Among those detained by the government of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo in July 2021 was student leader Lesther Alemán, 24, who has now been detained for more than a year and sentenced to 13 years in prison.

His sister, Kenia González, recalled that during the national dialogue held in the country in 2018, Alemán directly confronted Ortega about the deaths of students and peaceful protesters, and asked him to leave power. 

Since he was detained, Alemán has been one of the victims who has suffered prolonged isolation, physical and psychological torture, poor nutrition, and suffers from an undiagnosed disease in one of his legs that prevents him from walking properly, while the Police prevent him from accessing specialized medical care. 

“(This October 5), marks 15 months of him being  of liberty and my mom has only been able to see him on ten occasions. Every day she goes with some bottles of water and hope, sometimes they let them pass and sometimes they don’t”, denounced Gonzalez.

The situation in the Central American country is not improving and the media and human rights organizations report that between September and the beginning of October of this year, at least 17 more people were arbitrarily detained and criminal proceedings were initiated against them.  

Judges Act in Favor of Power to Convict Innocents

José Gregorio Guarenas, of the Vicariate of Human Rights of Venezuela, an organization of the Archdiocese of Caracas that promotes and defends human rights in that country, emphasized during his intervention that for there to be people deprived of liberty for political reasons in a country, there must also be a justice system that acts in favor of the government in power, as is the case in Venezuela and other countries. 

“For there to be political prisoners there must be a regime of judges who are at the disposal of the Executive Branch or at the disposal of a regime,” Guarenas stressed during his intervention. 

The Venezuelan Penal Forum estimates that since 2014 there were more than 15,775 arbitrary detentions of people who were later released. However, there are 244 who are still incarcerated and, of that same number, 79 were illegally convicted in questionable judicial processes full of arbitrariness.

A United Nations report published in September 2022 on the situation in Venezuela concluded that State agencies, both civilian and military, function as structures coordinated from the highest authorities of the government to repress dissidence through the commission of crimes against humanity.

From the International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights (Race and Equality), we maintain our constant call for the release of all persons deprived of liberty for political reasons in the Americas. 

Likewise, we urge the States to initiate reparation and justice processes in favor of the victims who did not commit any crime, but were imprisoned because of false accusations and in the framework of processes lacking independence, following instructions dictated from the Executive Power. 

Not one more day in detention!

Join Our Efforts

Help empower individuals and communities to achieve structural changes in Latin America.