I/A Court H.R., Case of Bulacio v. Argentina. Merits, Reparations and Costs. Judgment of September 18, 2003. Series C No. 100.

Non official brief

This summary is also published in the website of the Council of Europe in the following link: https://www.venice.coe.int/files/Bulletin/B2004-1-e.pdf




It is part of human nature that a person subject to arbitrary detention experiences deep suffering, accentuated in the case of children.


The right to effective judicial protection requires that the judges direct the process in such a way that undue delays and hindrances do not lead to impunity, thus frustrating adequate and due protection of human rights.


With respect to the power of the State to detain persons under its jurisdiction, material and formal requirements must be observed in applying a measure or punishment that involves imprisonment, that is: no one may be imprisoned for causes, cases or circumstances other than those defined by law (material aspect), but, also, strictly subject to procedures objectively defined in the law (formal aspect).


The State, being responsible for detention centers, is the guarantor of the rights of the detainees, which involves, among other things, the obligation to explain what happens to persons who are under its custody. The way a detainee is treated must be subject to the closest scrutiny, taking into account the detainee's vulnerability; this function of the State is especially important when the detainee is a minor. This circumstance gives the State the obligation to exercise its function as guarantor, taking all care required by the weakness, the lack of knowledge, and the defenselessness that minors naturally have under those circumstances.


The detainee and those with legal custody or representation of the detainee have the right to be informed of the causes and reasons for his or her detention at the time it occurs, which constitutes a mechanism to avoid illegal or arbitrary detentions from the very moment of imprisonment and, at the same time, ensures the individual's right to defense; it also contributes, in the case of a minor, to lessen the impact of detention insofar as possible.


One measure that seeks to prevent arbitrary treatment or illegality is immediate judicial control, taking into account that under the rule of law the judge must guarantee the rights of the detainee, authorise taking precautionary or coercive measures when strictly necessary, and generally seek a treatment that is consistent with the presumption of innocence in favor of the accused until his or her responsibility has been proven.


The detainee has the right to notify a third party that he or she is under State custody. Notification regarding the right to establish contact with a relative, an attorney and/or consular information, must be made at the time the accused is imprisoned, but in the case of minors it is necessary to take such measures as may be required for notification to effectively take place.


The right of detainees to communicate with third parties, who provide or will provide assistance and defense, goes together with the obligation of the State agents to immediately communicate to said persons the minor's detention, even if the minor has not requested it.


To safeguard the rights of children detainees, and especially their right to humane treatment, it is indispensable for them to be separated from adult detainees. In addition, those in charge of detention centers for children must be duly trained for the performance of their tasks.


The detainees must be examined and given medical care. Results of any medical examination ordered by the authorities - and which must not be conducted in the presence of the police authorities - must be delivered to the judge, the detainee and his attorney, or to him and whoever exercises custody or representation of the minor according to the law.


Deficient medical attention of a detainee violates Article 5 ACHR.


Police detention centers must have a record of detainees to enable control of legality of detentions. This requires entry, among other data, of: identification of the detainees, cause for detention, notification to the competent authority, and to those representing them, exercising custody or acting as defense counsel, if applicable, and the visits they have paid to the detainee, the date and time of entry and release, information given to the minor and to other persons regarding the rights and guarantees of the detainee, record of signs of beating or mental illness, transfers of the detainee, and meal schedule. The detainee must also sign the register and, if he or she does not, there must be an explanation of the reason. The defense counsel must have access to this file and, in general, to actions pertaining to the charges and the detention.


Razzias (massive, indiscriminate detentions) are incompatible with fundamental rights, including presumption of innocence, necessity of a court order for detention - except in situations of flagrancy - and the obligation to notify those in charge of minors.




This case concerns the illegal arrest on 19 April 1991 of seventeen year-old Walter David Bulacio, who sustained head injuries during his detention which subsequently caused his death on 26 April 1991. Bulacio was detained without a court order, and was not informed of his rights as a detainee; further, neither his parents nor the appropriate juvenile judge were notified of his arrest. Moreover, the State denied Bulacio's next of kin an effective judicial remedy by failing to:


1. clarify the causes of his detention and death,

2. punish those responsible, and

3. compensate for the damage caused.


On 24 January 2001, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights brought the case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In its Judgment of 18 September 2003, the Court declared, pursuant to the terms of the State's acknowledgment of international responsibility, that the latter violated the Article 4 ACHR (Right to Life), Article 5 ACHR (Right to Humane Treatment), Article 7 ACHR (Right to Personal Liberty) and Article 19 ACHR (Rights of the Child) to the detriment of Bulacio and the Article 8 ACHR (Right to a Fair Trial) and Article 25 ACHR (Right to Judicial Protection) to the detriment of both Bulacio and his next of kin, all the above in connection with Article 1.1 ACHR (Obligation to Respect Rights) and Article 2 ACHR (Domestic Legal Effects).


Furthermore, responding to the requests by the parties, the Court discussed in detail legal principles regarding the detention of children and, specifically, the imprisonment of children.