Children and relatives of burned prisoners in Honduras have a right to justice

Eight-year old Anderson Javier Muñoz holds a big picture of his father while he waits in line outside the morgue in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. “He was my dad. I loved him so much although I could only visit him during the weekends,” he says. Anderson and his mother await to identify and recover the body of Marvin Javier Muñoz, a man who burned to death in his cell along with 356 other inmates in a massive fire that destroyed a local jail on February 14.

At his young age, Anderson has already visited a prison and a morgue, two places that even adults find daunting. Watching a local TV news program, this boy learned that his dad died because prison guards kept the cells locked 90 minutes after the fire started that night, and that firemen responded to a neighbor’s call rather than a call from prison authorities.

Honduras has a record of poor incarceration facility management, and State authorities have shown a lack of willingness to hold those responsible for facility disasters accountable. This causes preventable suffering for the most vulnerable and denies them basic rights.

Certainly, the State of Honduras has an obligation to provide this child psychological treatment and compensation for the harm caused to him and his family, and that th government has a duty to investigate and punish those responsible for his father’s death. But because of his age, Anderson currently lacks mechanisms to access justice.

Unfortunately, this boy is not the only child victimized after a fire killed hundreds of inmates trapped in overcrowded facilities in Honduras. The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) recently participated in a hearing before the Inter-American Court about 107 prisoners who burned or suffocated to death on May 17, 2004 inside a jail in the industrial city of San Pedro Sula. In that previous incident, our report revealed a series of structural deficiencies inside Honduran prisons. Overpopulation, inadequacy of equipment and fixtures to deal with emergency situations, absence of evacuation procedures training for security guards, and inappropriate maintenance and repairs of the electrical installations at prisons imperiled the safety of the inmate population as well as visitors, some of whom included children. Most importantly, our report concluded that Honduras violated the fundamental rights of the prisoners by not protecting their lives and personal integrity. It also failed to adequately redress the victims’ next of kin with a thorough investigation of the facts and punish those responsible.

Research shows that victims, their relatives, and children can experience powerlessness, humiliation, low self-confidence, indignation, anger, rage, and aggression when they suffer human rights. Their feeling of powerlessness increase when those abuses go unpunished. “Many survivors turn their aggressions against themselves, instead of developing anger against their victimizers,” says the report, “Justice Heals” published by the Journal on Rehabilitation of Torture Victims and Prevention of Torture.

Impunity is defined by the absence of legal justice and by the protection of the perpetrators and it dismisses the needs of victims, survivors, and their families. However, children are usually the least protected victims of human rights violations. The lack of justice oftentimes leaves the blame on the victims and their relatives who are stigmatized and therefore, face a more difficult psychological recovery.

Children have a right to truth and access to justice, especially when they or their immediate family members are victims of human rights abuses. To deny them these rights will have serious potential consequences for the mental health and development. Therefore, governments and international organizations should take the necessary steps to include the impact and needs of children involved in abuses against human rights. Whether children are themselves victims of human trafficking or torture, survivors of genocide, or they are the children of killed journalists, murdered activists, or disappeared parents, they deserve integral remedies and reparations.

States should support educational campaigns to inform child victims about their rights, their role in the judicial process, and progress about their cases; provide they and their families legal support; protect their privacy and identity; and recognize their special needs and vulnerability as witnesses or plaintiffs.

Those actions might be an important contribution to Anderson’s healing process. He can either grow with resentment against the government of his own country or he can be empowered with the feeling of being a valuable member of society and a learning experience about justice and human rights.

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