21 July 2020
Category : Opinion
Criminal defence in police stations, a lesson learned from the “social outcry” in Chile
In this post, Chilean National Defender, Andrés Mahnke, talks about the progress made in Chile's criminal defence with the EUROsociAL+ projectIn this post, Chilean National Defender, Andrés Mahnke, talks about the progress made in Chile's criminal defence with the EUROsociAL+ project
The so-called “social outcry” started in Chile on 18 October 2019 and transformed the country’s agenda, not only because its citizens demanded it, and because it exposed the activities of public institutions which now, more than ever, were struggling to cope with hitherto unseen scenarios stemming from the demonstrations.
The Chilean social outcry attracted international interest, since it included loss of life and hundreds of people with ocular mutilation, numerous complaints of serious human rights violations, and destruction of public and private infrastructures, among other consequences. As a result, the country received visits from representatives of several international human rights organisations, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
In all these areas, Chilean justice and its actors had to take action, monitored by the justice system and the close scrutiny of an empowered citizenry and the international community. In this context, a series of adjustments and learnings took place, which started to become visible during the first quarter of 2020, and which had their acid test during March of this year.
However, this story had an unexpected twist, which dominated all scenarios and modified all agendas: the SARS-CoV2 Coronavirus, which causes the disease known as Covid19 . A few weeks after the disease reared its head in Chile, it forced a change to the electoral calendar for the beginning of the constitutional process and caused something which was unthinkable just weeks earlier: the end of mass social protest in public spaces. People went home and the streets were empty, in the same way as happened almost all over the world.
But reflection on the changes to the justice system and the lessons learned from the ‘outbreak’ must not stop. In fact, they have become even more essential to resume the fluidity of public activity when the health emergency ends. Nor does the outcry seem to have disappeared, rather it has been put on hold with a few resurgences due to the lack of food during the quarantine. Everything suggests the social and economic impact of the pandemic will exacerbate existing inequalities. Therefore, this period has been an opportunity to integrate our learning and anticipate future scenarios.
In the social protest scenario, one indirect effect was connected to the work of the different actors in the criminal system facing an unprecedented challenge in terms of coverage and operational capacity, because of the notable increase in the number of people detained and processed.
Between 18 October and 13 November 2019, the Chilean Public Criminal Defender’s Office – a public institution that guarantees the right to defence and which is made up of 722 officials and 524 external providers – attended to 20,645 people under arrest, an increase of 25.4% compared to the same period of the previous year.
These increases, however, were even greater during the initial days of the crisis. Between 20 and 28 October, a period during which much of Chile was under a “state of constitutional exception”, the institution registered 10,712 defendants undergoing detention reviews, representing an increase of 70% compared to the same period in 2018. Furthermore, whereas on average there are between 600 and 650 daily detention reviews in the country, at that time they increased to 1,100 daily hearings, reaching a peak of 2,508 detention reviews on 21 October.
Beyond this work, an initial conclusion showed that an indeterminate number of detainees were not assisted by public defenders, either because the Public Ministry had decided not to transfer them to detention review, or because the police did not report that they had been arrested. This meant that there was no jurisdictional control of these activities and there were no records.
This triggered a contingency plan in Public Defence to attend to people detained in the police units, because by institutional design, defenders are in contact with the detainee just before the detention review hearing before the supervisory judge. Although public defenders set up informal service centres in police stations and other police detention facilities, this gave direct coverage to only 105 of the 900 police stations in the country.
This gap need to be filled urgently, since numerous people’s rights have been violated, as described in reports from the human rights organisations who visited the country.
Institutionally, the Chilean Public Criminal Defender’s Office activated different measures, such as strengthening the dissemination of rights , coordinating with the rest of the actors in the system, and opening channels for collaboration with the police, among others.
However, the main initiative that followed the period of social crisis in Chile stemmed from the support lent by EUROsociAL+, European Union programme managed by the FIIAPP, whose specialists are currently collaborating with Public Defenders to prepare a ‘Criminal defence protocol for the initial hours following arrest‘.
Its main objective is to find a means to provide coverage that guarantees the right of detained persons to a defence lawyer in the shortest possible time, thus protecting their right to technical defence. Furthermore, as international organisations that promote and protect human rights have revealed, the presence of a defence lawyer is a safeguard to protect the detained person’s other rights, particularly to prevent torture.
These actions enable comprehensive, effective achievement of the institutional mission to guarantee the right to defence of any accused person at all stages of the criminal process, preventing violation of rights and strengthening judicial detention review, providing public defenders with more tools to appeal against the punitive power of the State on an equal footing before the courts of justice.
The objective is always the same: to reinforce institutional commitment to the rule of law, a peaceful society and democracy in Chile, a task for which we are grateful to have the steadfast, permanent support of European cooperation.
By Andrés Mahnke M., National Defender (Chilean Public Criminal Defender)
In relation to the work done together with the Chilean Public Criminal Defender’s Office, the EUROsociAL+ programme has just published a diagnosis of the criminal defence of people in the first few hours of detention in the Latin American country.
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