Enforced disappearances and justice one case at a time
By Carlos Gaio*
For decades families of the disappeared and human rights NGOs have worked relentlessly against enforced disappearance and to make the rights of victims a reality. The adoption of the UN Convention on Enforced Disappearances represented an important moment of hope that justice could see its day. This article will analyze how the decision adopted by a UN treaty-body in the case of Yrusta v Argentina could provide the rationale to seek justice for the recent disappearance and death of journalist Samuel Wazizi in Cameroon.
15 years after the adoption of the Convention and 11 years since its entry into force, the promise of ending this practice and the ensuing impunity for one of the worst human rights violations remains elusive. Over a decade ago I wrote:
[…] "in 2007 alone the Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearance transmitted 629 new cases of reported enforced disappearances to governments for response. This is in addition to the more than 40,000 active cases of disappearances – a fraction of the total – that have not yet been clarified."
Yet, in its last annual report, covering the period of May 2019 to May 2020, the WGEID reported having transmitted 699 new cases in 26 countries. The number of cases under active consideration reached 46,271(here). The numbers are even more concerning given that the Committee on Enforced Disappearances (the Committee or CED), the UN body charged with monitoring the implementation of the UN Convention on the same topic, reported that from 2012 to 2019 it received 782 urgent actions and adopted three decisions (“views”) on individual communications (cases).
It seems that despite the tireless work of human rights defenders and relatives of victims and an impressive body of work of legal precedents, initiatives, and policies around the world the Convention and its Committee have not been able to turn the tide against this phenomenon.
The Enforced Disappearances Convention is one of the most forceful human rights conventions the UN has ever adopted. It contains clear and practical guidance for implementing the international standards into domestic legislation. For instance, it requires that states review their laws to criminalise enforced disappearance according to the text of the Convention; that they prohibit secret detention; carry out independent investigations; search for the disappeared; hold those responsible fully accountable; establish the truth about enforced disappearance; and ensure that victims and families have the right to obtain reparation. Every state that ratifies the Convention – 63 have already done so (here) – commits to doing all of the above.
The increasing number of cases mentioned earlier point to a massive gap between the development of international standards and mechanisms – being the Convention and the respective Committee a powerful symbol – and the unyielding daily disappearances of journalists, human rights defenders, or government critics in every region of the world.
Despite this sobering (or some might say despairing) take on international human rights law, there is always hope that the effort from committed human rights defenders and legal practitioners will not be in vain. Strategic litigation of emblematic cases is one of the many tools at the disposal of lawyers and NGOs to bring about change beyond an individual case (here).In my view, this is our best chance to achieve justice for victims, bring perpetrators to account, and promote changes in public policy and practice.
A historic precedent from Latin America, the case of Roberto Yrusta, decided by the Committee and the Samuel Wazizi case, resulting in the death of a journalist in Africa shows how sometimes uncoordinated efforts can generate (or reinforce) new interpretations of the law and open up paths for redress and accountability.
Roberto Agustín Yrusta was sentenced to 8 years in prison for aggravated robbery with the use of a firearm in 2005. He was held in Reverend Father Luchesse Prison Complex No. 1 (Bouwer Prison) in the Province of Córdoba (Argentina). During his imprisonment, he complained of being subjected to torture and inhuman and degrading treatment by prison officers. In the final months of 2012, Mr. Yrusta filed a formal complaint with the Córdoba provincial courts and gave an interview to a television programme about his ordeal. His mistreatment got worse. Fearing for his life, he asked for a transfer to the Province of Santiago del Estero, where his family lived. Despite this request, he was instead transferred to a prison facility in the Province of Santa Fe. The transfer was carried out in a deceptive manner, without informing Mr. Yrusta or his family. He was then placed in an isolation cell. Meanwhile, his family repeatedly asked the prison services for information on his whereabouts but received no reply. Prison records did not register him correctly and did not make clear who ordered his transfer, nor when it took place. This situation lasted for a period of more than seven days. In February 2013, 3 weeks after his transfer and 4 months before Mr. Yrusta was due for release on parole, he was found dead in his cell. The prison service informed that he had committed suicide by hanging himself.
Domestic remedies did not provide answers. The case was taken to the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances by the Public Defenders’ Office. In 2016 the CED concluded that an enforced disappearance does not have to begin with arbitrary or illegal detention, nor be the intention of the officials involved, but that the legal detention of a person can become illegal and, as in this case, an enforced disappearance. Importantly, the Committee considered that the prison authorities’ failure to provide information as to Mr. Yrusta’s whereabouts and the lack of information about what happened during the period for which his whereabouts remained unknown constituted concealment of his fate or whereabouts, which represented a form of secret detention (here).
In addition to achieving a determination from international human rights mechanisms establishing the violations endured by Mr. Yrusta and the state’s responsibility for them, the decision sets an important precedent that can be used in strategic litigation in Argentina and elsewhere. The Yrusta case is also interesting because it highlights the many manifestations of enforced disappearances, which are usually observed as part of a pattern of state violence or methods to exert pressure on the prisoner or his/her family. Illegal transfers of prisoners and torture or ill-treatment during these periods are common in many countries, in particular in Argentina.
Journalist Samuel Ajiekah Abuwe, popularly known in Cameroon as Samuel Wazizi, was arrested by the police on 2 August 2019, apparently in retaliation for his coverage of the conflict in Anglophone Cameroon. That same day Mr. Wazizi’s lawyer went to the police station to see his client but was told that he would be transferred to another judicial police division. The following day, Mr. Wazizi was moved to an undisclosed location by the Cameroonian army. No one was allowed to see him that day. Mr. Wazizi effectively disappeared until June 2020, when the Army issued a press release informing that Mr. Wazizi had been detained on suspicion of “having connections with terrorists and complicity in terrorist acts” and was transferred to the infamous Central Criminal Investigation Service of the Gendarmerie, in Yaoundé. According to the army, he died two weeks after his arrest, on 17 August 2019, “as a result of a ‘sévère sepsis’, and not from any act of torture or physical abuse”. Wazizi was never brought before a judge and no record is available regarding his arrest or period in custody. His family does not even know where his body was buried and no autopsy or other medical exam was made public.
Soon after his arrest, his lawyer filed an application for habeas corpus. This urgent remedy was delayed through meritless procedural challenges. Three months later the local court dismissed the habeas corpus on a procedural technicality. By then Samuel Wazizi was already dead but the government continued to conceal this information. A second habeas corpus application was then filed by his lawyers, urging the courts to establish his whereabouts. This application is still pending! In its defense, the government continued with the charade and has never acknowledged in court his whereabouts or what happened to him. A third petition was filed last year calling for an independent investigation into the circumstances of the arrest, disappearance, and death. However, once again repeated delays and postponements mean this remedy remains unresolved.
The initial detention was not denied by local officials. It was acknowledged at the time and justified on the basis of complicity in terrorism. In court government lawyers played a different game. As with Mr. Yrusta’s case, it is uncontroversial that Mr. Wazizi was under the custody of the state. The authorities knew where he was but refused to reveal his whereabouts and covered up his death until pressure from local and international groups increased (here). The brief description of legal avenues pursued domestically indicates that there is very little hope that Cameroon’s judiciary will provide justice for Mr. Wazizi’s family.
The two cases discussed in this article are used to highlight the interplay between individual international litigation efforts and how the decision in one case (Yrusta) can inform the arguments and outcome in a (very) different setting (Wazizi). It would be straightforward for lawyers to frame Mr. Wazisi’s case as arbitrary detention, followed by (possible) ill-treatment and illegal deprivation of life. This article suggests that Mr. Yrusta’s case provides the opportunity to look at the events that led to Mr. Wazizi’s death from a different, complementary perspective.
When considering avenues for redress, the authoritative interpretation of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances helps in characterizing Mr. Wazizi’s ordeal as an enforced disappearance followed by his death. He was detained by security forces and transferred into the custody of the army. The secrecy continued throughout his custody by the army and the government’s refusal to acknowledge his whereabouts, even in court. Even though an army spokesperson admitted that Mr. Wazizi died of “sepsis”, his body has not been returned to the family, no medical examination was made available to his family or his lawyer and, ultimately, no one knows where he is buried. To this day his whereabouts remain concealed. It is well established that enforced disappearances have a permanent nature and their consequences imply multiple human rights violations “while the whereabouts of the victim are not known or their remains have not been located”.
In addition, there is some evidence that a pattern of enforced disappearances exists in Cameroon (here, here) in the context of the ‘fight against terrorism’. This circumstance, added to the fact that Mr. Wazizi was last seen in a state-run detention facility, points to an inverted burden of proof in this case – similar to what happened in the Yrusta case.
The state had –and continues to have– the obligation to search, locate and, in the case of death, return the remains of the victim. At the same time, the obligation to investigate the facts and persecute those responsible requires an investigation to be i) independent and impartial; ii) prompt and expeditious; iii) thorough, in seeking to ascertain the material facts, and authorities “should not rely on hasty or ill-founded conclusions to close their investigation or as the basis of their decisions;” allow for iv) family participation; and should be aimed at vi) ascertaining the facts, identifying the perpetrators and prosecuting them.
When the Convention entered into force, there was hope that justice for the thousands who remain disappeared would come a step closer. For the vast majority, this hope has not materialized. However, as in the case of Mr. Yrusta, the determination of his family should instill in us the purpose to continue fighting to prevent these violations, to halt them, and to end impunity. Even if this has to be done one case at a time. In the Yrusta case, Argentina is obliged to prosecute, judge, and punish the persons responsible for his torture and enforced disappearance. All of the above is evidently missing in the case of Samuel Wazizi. The only hope for accountability in his case lies with an international or regional human rights mechanism. Just like any other victim of enforced disappearance, Samuel Wazizi’s family deserves justice.
 Press Release 0355/CP/MINDEF/019, 5 June 2020 (on file with the author).  Inter alia, IACtHR, Case of Radilla Pacheco v Mexico, 23 November 2009, para 145.
* Carlos Gaio is Senior Legal Officer at Media Defence. Prior to joining Media Defence, Carlos worked for 10 years as senior lawyer at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. He also worked for human rights foundations and NGOs in the UK and in Brazil, specialising in human rights law, UN mechanisms and international litigation on issues such as due process, extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detention, torture, violence against women, human rights defenders, right to food, slavery and freedom of expression. Carlos holds an MA in International Relations from the University of Essex, UK, and an LLB from the Federal University of Paraná, Brazil. He has been called to the Brazilian Bar.
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