By Robin Guittard, Amnesty International Research and Campaigns Assistant
Since 2011, I have had the opportunity of visiting the Dominican Republic on four occasions as an Amnesty International delegate. Today, as I approach the end of my most recent visit, I feel I now understand Dominican society much better while also having increasing difficulty in coming to terms with its complexity.
During these visits, Amnesty International’s name opened many doors for us – those of the National Police and the Attorney-General’s Office, and even the office of the President of the Republic in the National Palace in the capital, Santo Domingo.
And yet the most edifying moments have been the dozens of meetings with the organisations and activists that make up Dominican civil society, who have helped us gain a better understanding of the reality of this fascinating country. And the hardest have undoubtedly been the numerous meetings with victims, and the families of victims, of police abuse. Mothers in tears in front of us because their young son has been shot and will probably be disabled for the rest of his life. Fathers losing the will to live once they have lost their son. Wives who witnessed, their children in their arms, the police gun down their husbands.
These accounts led Amnesty International to publish a report in October 2011 on the numerous human rights violations being committed by the Dominican police, and a campaign was subsequently launched to put an end to this situation.
After four visits to the Dominican Republic, I am increasingly convinced of the importance of and need for the work we do. Amnesty International’s mission is to denounce human rights violations wherever they occur and to promote societies that are more respectful of each and every person’s human rights, particularly those of minorities and the most disadvantaged in society.
Many human rights violations take place in the Dominican Republic every day and, during my four visits, I have heard how women, migrants, youths, transsexuals, the poor, black people and many other communities suffer numerous violations of their rights and discrimination. This country of beautiful beaches and enjoyable music in the form of the merengue and bachata clearly has a shady side. But does this shady side include the police?
It would be too easy and not particularly constructive to say that the police are the key problem in Dominican society as a whole. Far less to accuse police officers who risk their lives patrolling the country’s dangerous districts for a salary that is barely sufficient to live on. And yet I cannot help thinking about what I have heard; these traumatic accounts have got under my skin. Why do all these people have so many bad tales to tell about the police?
In October 2011, the same day that we were presenting our report on police abuse to the press in Santo Domingo, we were approached by representatives from a community in the east of Santo Domingo that had recently been forcibly evicted from their homes by police and soldiers. The officers had arrived with no warrant and, without any warning, had begun to knock down the houses, steal their belongings and even use tear gas and buckshot against the residents. As if this were not enough, in the following days, the officers continued to hound the community which, by then, had sought refuge in a tent a few streets from where they lived.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. The police play a central role in most of the forced evictions documented by local organisations, a role often involving destruction and violence. Sometimes it is not only the residents themselves who are the victims of abuse. Last month, Amnesty International issued a warning after a journalist covering an eviction by the police in the vicinity of Nagua was attacked and threatened by the security forces. According to the National Union of Journalists, 60% of the attacks on journalists they have recorded since the start of the year have been committed by agents of the State.
Attacks on freedom of expression often take different forms in the Dominican Republic, particularly when this relates to freedom of demonstration. Dominican civil society’s social demands have been increasing over the last decade and these movements have not been spared various forms of abuse during their protests. Movements as peaceful as the “4% for education” (a movement calling for 4% of GDP to be allocated to education in the national budget, as established by law) or “Reconoci.do” (a movement of Dominicans of Haitian descent demanding their right to nationality) have thus suffered harassment and arbitrary arrests at the hands of the police. At the start of the year, Amnesty International issued an urgent action on behalf of Reconoci.do protestors who were demonstrating outside the Central Electoral Board. Fifteen of them were arbitrarily arrested by the police.
Many local human rights groups have complained to us that black people or those of African origin are racially discriminated against by the police. Many black people find they are, at best, monitored more closely or, at worst, considered Haitian and thus an even greater threat. Cases of black Dominicans being arrested by the police or immigration officers and deported arbitrarily to Haiti continue to be reported.
This problem is multi-faceted, and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community is another group that has suffered discrimination and punishment at the hands of the National Police. This group told us how they had struggled over the last 15 years to be able to express their demands without fear of reprisals. Organisation of the Gay Pride March has been, for them, an all-out struggle against police restrictions and repression for years. They continue to face high levels of discrimination and prejudice from the police, and recount that transsexuals, in particular, are often the victims of attacks, aggression and rape.
The common denominator in all these accounts continues to be the Dominican police force acting far too often as the repressive face of the State. Growing social demands in the country often clash with the repressive State role assumed by the police. We would not want to claim that the police alone are responsible for this situation but rather that very often they seem to be the first messenger.
Given all the cases we have seen and investigated, I feel that Amnesty International’s work to promote police reform in the Dominican Republic is increasingly important. The National Police must be transformed into a body that is truly at the service of the whole population, with a duty to protect human rights and support the legitimate demands of Dominican civil society.
At a time when the Dominican government is committed to reforming the National Police, the opportunity to involve all sectors of society in designing a new police force must not be ignored.
A common thread that runs through all the accounts above, and many more not described here, is the alarming level of police mistrust among the Dominican population. If this situation is to change, it is essential that confidence is created in the process of police reform itself. Amnesty International works to promote societies that are respectful of human rights, and I have no doubt that, if this is to be achieved in the Dominican Republic, the repressive police model will first need to be transformed into one that is truly at the service of the community.
‘Shut up if you don’t want to be killed!’: Human rights violations by police in the Dominican Republic (Report, 25 October 2011)