I/A Court H.R., Case of Velásquez Paiz et al. v. Guatemala. Preliminary Objections, Merits, Reparations and Costs. Judgment of November 19, 2015. Series C No. 307.

Non official brief


[This summary was developed by the Secretariat of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. It relates only to the merits and reparations aspects of the judgment. A more detailed, official abstract (in Spanish only) is available on that Court’s website: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/.] 

 

 

Facts – The facts of this case occurred in a context of increased violence against women and gender- based homicides in Guatemala. It was shown that the State became aware of this situation by at least December 2001. In 2004 and 2005 the numbers of such homicides had increased and had remained high since, and were accompanied by high levels of impunity.

 

Claudina Isabel Velásquez Paiz was a 19-year-old law student who informed her family that she was at a party on the night of 12 August 2005. Around 11.45 p.m., and after several mobile phone calls, her parents held a last call with her and subsequently lost communication. At approximately 2 a.m. on 13 August 2005, Claudina's parents were informed that she might be in danger and thus began searching for her. Around 2.50 or 2.55 a.m. they called the National Civil Police and, in response, at approximately 3 a.m. a patrol arrived at the Panorama Neighbourhood, where the police officers were informed by Claudina's parents that they were searching for her and that she could be in danger. The officers escorted her parents from the Panorama Neighbourhood to the entrance of the Pinares Neighbourhood, where they told them there was nothing else they could do, that they had to wait at least 24 hours to report their daughter as missing, and that meanwhile they would keep patrolling. Between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., the parents continued their search with the help of family and friends. Around 5 a.m. they went to the police station to report her disappearance but were again told to wait 24 hours. Finally, at 8.30 a.m. their claim was received in writing at Police Sub-Station San Cristobal 1651.

 

Around 5 a.m. the Volunteer Fire Department of Guatemala received an anonymous call regarding the discovery of a corpse in the Roosevelt Neighbourhood and rushed to the scene. Later two police officers, the assistant prosecutor, and other investigative authorities arrived. The victim’s body, which was found on the asphalt covered with a white sheet, was identified as “XX.” She had sustained injuries and had been shot in the forehead, her clothes were covered in blood, and there were signs to indicate probable sexual violence.

 

Claudina Velásquez’s parents received a call from a friend telling them that an unidentified body that looked like their daughter was in the morgue of the Forensic Medical Service. Around noon, they identified their daughter and her body was released to them by the forensic doctor. Later, the assistant prosecutor and technicians in Criminal Investigations arrived at Claudina's wake and collected her fingerprints, after threatening her family that they would be accused of obstructing justice if they refused to permit them to carry out the procedure.

 

Criminal proceedings were initiated in 2005 before the Tribunals of First Instance in Criminal Matters, Narcotics, and Crimes against the Environment. Nine persons were linked to the investigations, but no one was ever charged. In 2006 the Human Rights Ombudsman also initiated an investigation and issued a resolution declaring violations to Claudina Velásquez's rights to life, personal security, and justice within a reasonable time, as well as to her and her family´s right to judicial protection. The resolution also declared several State authorities liable for the violations. Additionally, disciplinary proceedings were initiated that resulted in a verbal admonishment against two investigators and a 20-day suspension for a forensic doctor.

 

Law

(a)     Preliminary objections – The State submitted two preliminary objections: (i) lack of jurisdiction ratione materiae in respect of Article 7 of the Inter- American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women (Belém do Pará Convention), and (ii) non- exhaustion of domestic remedies. The Inter- American Court rejected the first objection, considering that Article 12 of that Convention granted it jurisdiction by not exempting from its application any of the rules and procedures established for individual communications. The second preliminary objection was also rejected because the State had implicitly admitted that at the moment the petition was filed, the domestic remedies had been subject to unjustified delays or lacked effectiveness. In addition, the State had not mentioned which remedies were available, or whether they were adequate, appropriate, and effective.

 

(b)     Articles 4(1) and 5(1) (rights to life and personal integrity) of the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR), in relation to Articles 1(1) (obligation to respect and ensure rights) and 2 (domestic legal effects) thereof and Article 7 of the Belém do Pará Convention – The Inter-American Court reiterated its consistent jurisprudence that a State cannot be responsible for every violation of human rights committed between individuals within its juris- diction. Thus, in order to establish a breach of the duty to prevent violations of the rights to life and personal integrity, it must be verified that the State authorities (i) knew, or should have known, of the existence of a real and immediate risk to the life and/or personal integrity of an individual or group of individuals, and (ii) failed to take the necessary measures within the scope of their powers which, judged reasonably, might have been expected to prevent or avoid that risk.

 

The Court recalled that in a context of increased violence against women of which the State is aware, there arises a duty of strict due diligence when State authorities are alerted to the fact that a woman’s life or personal integrity is in danger. This duty requires an exhaustive search during the first few hours and days, following adequate procedures.

 

The Court found Guatemala internationally responsible because: (i) in the time before Claudina’s disappearance, despite the known context of violence against women, the State had not implemented the measures necessary so that the authorities responsible for receiving complaints regarding missing persons would have the capacity and sensitivity to understand the seriousness of such claims, and the willingness and training to act immediately and effectively; (ii) once alerted that Claudina Velásquez was in danger, the authorities had not acted with the due diligence required to adequately prevent her injuries and death, as they had not acted as would be reasonably expected given the context of the case and the allegations before them. For instance, they had initially refused to take the complaint, indicating that the parents had to wait 24 hours to report her as missing; they had not collected data and descriptions that would permit her identification; they had not undertaken a systematic, strategic, exhaustive, and coordinated search with other State authorities, covering areas where she was likely to be; and they had not interviewed persons who might logically have information on her whereabouts.

Conclusion: violation (unanimously).

 

(c)     Articles 8(1) (right to a fair trial), 25 (right to judicial protection) and 24 (right to equal protection) of the ACHR, in conjunction with Articles 1(1) and 2 thereof and Article 7 of the Belém do Pará Convention – The Inter-American Court found that the criminal investigation should have initiated with the claims that Claudina was missing; how- ever, it had initiated only with the discovery of her body. Additionally, the Court held that the State had not investigated with due diligence, as there were a number of irregularities in the collection of evidence at the crime scene and during the later stages of the investigation. Also, it found that over 10 years, investigative actions had been tardy and repetitive, without a clear objective, violating the family’s right to access to justice within a reasonable time.

 

Furthermore, given all the signs that Claudina had suffered sexual violence, the Court concluded that the State had violated its obligation to investigate her death as a possible manifestation of violence against women and with a gender perspective. Additionally, it found that the State authorities had not investigated diligently and rigorously owing to gender stereotypes and prejudices regarding her attire and the place where she was found that allowed the victim to be viewed as a person whose death did not deserve to be investigated or as someone who could be blamed for the attacks committed against her. Also, the characterisation of the crime as a possible “crime of passion” was based on a stereotype that justified the conduct of the aggressor. All of this constituted violence against women and a form of gender discrimination in access to justice.

Conclusion: violation (unanimously).

 

(d)     Articles 5(1) (right to personal integrity) and 11 (right to honour and dignity), in relation to Article 1(1) of the ACHR – The Inter-American Court determined that the way the investigation of the case was conducted, in particular, the way in which the prosecutors had intruded upon the victim’s wake in order to obtain her fingerprints, the way she was labelled as a person whose death did not deserve to be investigated, and the irregularities and deficiencies that had occurred throughout the investigation, in which Claudina's father was particularly active, had violated the family’s right to personal integrity. Also, the Court indicated that when the prosecutors arrived at the wake to take Claudina's fingerprints and threatened her parents with charges of obstruction of justice if they refused, they had intruded upon an intimate and painful moment in order to manipulate Claudina's remains once again, even though this procedure should have been carried out before the body was delivered to her family. They had thus affected the family’s right to honour and dignity.

Conclusion: violation (unanimously).

 

(e)     Article 11 (right to privacy) of the ACHR – Given that it had already ruled on the State’s duty to investigate the signs that Claudina Velásquez had possibly been subjected to sexual violence, the Court found it unnecessary to analyse the alleged violation of her right to privacy.

Conclusion: unnecessary to rule (unanimously).

 

(f) Articles 13 (freedom of thought and expression) and 22 (freedom of movement and residence) of the ACHR – The Court held that the alleged violations of these rights had already been duly considered in the chapter of the judgment on access to justice; thus, it was unnecessary to rule thereon.

Conclusion: unnecessary to rule (six votes to one).

 

(g)     Reparations – The Inter-American Court established that the judgment constituted per se a form of reparation and ordered, among other measures, that the State: (i) open, conduct, and conclude, as appropriate and with due diligence, criminal investigations and proceedings in order to identify, prosecute, and, if applicable, punish those responsible for Claudina's injuries and death, as well as evaluate the conduct of the public servants involved in the investigation of the case in accordance with pertinent disciplinary norms; (ii) provide free medical and psychological or psychiatric treatment to the victims that required it; (iii) publish the judgment and its official summary; (iv) perform an act of public apology; (v) incorporate a continuing education programme on the need to eradicate gender discrimination, gender stereotypes and violence against women in Guatemala into the curriculum of the National Education System; (vi) develop a timetabled plan to strengthen the National Institute of Forensic Sciences; (vii) implement the full functioning of “specialised courts” and specialised prosecution throughout the Re- public of Guatemala; (viii) implement permanent programmes and courses for the judiciary, prosecutors, and National Civil Police on the investigation into killings of women and on standards on the prevention, punishment, and eradication  of killings of women, as well as train them on the proper implementation of international law and the jurisprudence of the Inter-American Court on the matter; (ix) adopt a strategy, system, mechanism, or national programme, through legislative or other measures, in order to ensure effective and immediate searches for missing women; and (x) pay pecuniary and non-pecuniary damages, as well as costs and expenses.