Advocating for justice in Honduras’ deadly prisons

In Honduran prisons, the death toll is stark: 109 detainees died in custody in the past six years. Their families are still waiting for justice. Esther Salinas is a lawyer for the Center for the Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture and their Families (CPTRT), a member of the OMCT’s SOS-Torture network. She shares her first-hand account of grappling with human rights violations in a country plagued by impunity.

What does being a lawyer as a young woman in Honduras mean?

Navigating the legal landscape as a young lawyer in Honduras comes with unique challenges. Unfortunately, youth often translates to perceived inexperience, and being a woman adds another layer to this dynamic. In many instances, there's a concerted effort to silence female voices in the legal arena.

Does Honduras have a safe and adequate environment to defend human rights?

Regrettably, no. My organisation – the Center for the Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture and their Families – works on the issue of torture in prisons. Advocating for detainees, who are often viewed through a lens of suspicion due to their alleged involvement in crimes, pits us against both governmental and societal scrutiny. This makes our daily work challenging, as we encounter resistance from prison staff and face obstacles in accessing detention centres that are crucial to our mission.

Who are the primary victims of State repression in Honduras?

In Honduras, the State criminalizes human rights defenders, especially land defenders, but also vulnerable people from marginalized communities and those with limited economic resources. Among them, detainees face particularly heavy repression. Since 2017, we have documented 109 deaths in custody in the 24 prisons in the country.

On 20 June 2023, 46 women of the National Women's Penitentiary were murdered with firearms and knives, and many were burned to the point where DNA tests had to be done to identify them. So far, there has been no proper investigation into how the weapons and flammable materials have entered the facility. As a result, prison security was tightened and entrusted to the army.

What has been the result of this militarization of prisons?

The militarization of prisons has led to a surge in reports of inhumane treatment and torture. This affects not only detainees but also their families, who face harassment and humiliation when they come to visit their incarcerated relatives.

New policies have been implemented, heavily restricting visits, including those of civil society organisations whose role is to assess human rights in detention. Detainees no longer benefit from privacy when speaking to visitors or NGO staff. These conditions severely limit our access to information, as prisoners fear reprisals if they openly denounce their perpetrators.

Why do you think militarization has led to more cases of torture?

The armed forces are trained to respond to security crises, but they lack the nuanced approach required for managing incarcerated populations. This absence of proper training and oversight has fostered an environment conducive to abuse and violence.

Did you have any success in getting justice for torture victims?

Unfortunately, not. From 2017 to 2023, we have only obtained one sentence for cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. And out of 99 complaints of torture, only 10 have been prosecuted. Victims are afraid of coming forward because due process is not respected, and they fear reprisals.

Esther Salinas, lawyer for the Center for the Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture and their Families (CPTRT)

What is your hope for Honduras?

I hope Honduras finally adheres to international human rights standards and the unequivocal prohibition of torture under any circumstances. True progress can only be achieved when the rights and dignity of all individuals are respected and upheld without exception.