Let’s hope we don’t have to go back

On the evening of Monday, 11 March, dozens of activists were holding a symbolic vigil outside the headquarters of the Central Electoral Board in Santo Domingo when it was violently broken up by the National Police.

Their belongings were confiscated and 15 activists who persisted with their protest were arrested. One was injured when a police officer threw teargas at him as he lay on the ground resisting arrest. The 15 were taken to the police station in Las Caobas and released without charge an hour later.

The activists were protesting about the fact that tens of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent are still being denied identity documents, depriving them of their Dominican nationality and, as a result, of many of their rights.

I found out about that nasty incident that same Monday evening in Washington. I had gone there with a group of representatives of Dominican civil society.

The next day we went to convey our concerns about the continuing abuses being committed by the Dominican police to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and representatives of the Dominican State.

Another group of Dominican organizations was going to participate in another thematic hearing before the IACHR on the denaturalization of Dominicans of Haitian origin.Both groups mentioned the incident when testifying at the hearings. The Dominican authorities had provided us with a perfect example of the kind of problems we wanted to bring to the Commission’s attention.

But then, there is no shortage of examples.

The first group of organizations gave many examples of unlawful killings, torture, forced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and the violent suppression of peaceful demonstrations. We even showed a video showing the summary execution at the hands of a police officer of a prisoner who had escaped from San Francisco de Macorís Prison in October 2012.

The second group explained in detail how people deprived of their identity documents are not only unable to access many of their rights but also, in many cases, are subjected to abuse and harassment when they dare to call for them.

Faced with these accusations, the representatives of the Dominican State, who were participating in the two hearings, confined themselves to making the usual responses.They gave assurances that all cases of police abuse are systematically and independently investigated and punished. They forgot that many have been left neglected and that, although some cases have been punished, such abuses are still going on.

As for the complaints from Dominicans of Haitian origin, the government representatives insisted on dealing with the issue as one of migration. In this way, they pretend to be unaware that the people affected are Dominicans who have been deprived of their documents and their rights from one day to the next.

The State responses were not very encouraging but at least the observations and recommendations made to the State representatives by members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights were very appropriate and relevant.

The IACHR said that institutional mechanisms need to be set in place to deal with complaints concerning denationalization and expressed concern at the harassment of those concerned since it amounted to an attack on the right to freedom of expression and demonstration.

It also asked the State to clarify what measures were being taken to eliminate the problem of extrajudicial executions, called for civil society to be involved in police reform and expressed concern at the failure to appoint an Ombudsman.

Dominican human rights defenders left Washington with just one wish: that they wouldn’t have to go back to the Inter-American Commission for further hearings. This would mean incidents such as that which occurred on 11 March no longer taking place, the Dominican police effectively protecting citizens and not violating their rights, and Dominican men and women of Haitian origin being recognized for what they are: Dominicans.