The decision of bring thousands of imprisoned suspected gang members to collective trials in El Salvador it was rejected by human rights organizations and judges, who affirm that it is a populist measure to favor the re-election of President Nayib Bukele, but part of the population and supporters of the president supported the measure.
The rule approved on Wednesday by Congress, under the exception regime in force since March 2022, will lead to some 900 inmates facing the same trial, which implies a “violation of the rights to defense”, according to Amnesty International (AI).
“After more than a year (of the exception regime), We have verified how the legal reforms associated with this repressive measure have had the objective of the erosion of the basic guarantees of criminal proceedings,” Erika Guevara Rosas, AI’s director for the Americas, told AFP.
Almost 72,000 suspected gang members are imprisoned in El Salvador under the emergency regime, which allows arrests without a warrant. In addition, Bukele built a mega-prison for 40,000 gang members, considered the “largest prison in America”, with a harsh confinement regime that is also denounced by human rights groups.
“Continuing with collective trials in the following stages of the criminal process constitutes a continuum of violation of the rights to a defense, a fair trial and the presumption of innocence, rights that have been flagrantly violated” by Bukele, Guevara Rosas said.
The measure was rejected by Judge Antonio Durán, a critic of the emergency regime, who stated that it seeks “to have massive and rapid sentences.”
“This is all part of the re-election campaign, which is unconstitutional,” the judge declared.
He alluded to the fact that the Salvadoran Constitution does not allow re-election, but the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, in a controversial ruling, gave Bukele the green light to seek a second term at the polls, in February 2024. The collective trials were approved six months before the elections, while Bukele enjoys high popularity for his “war” against the gangs, which raised security levels in the country.
“This massive trial contradicts a principle that is the principle of responsibility, responsibility is individual,” said Judge Durán.
The former leftist guerrilla party (FMLN), which voted against the decree, said it involves a “clear violation of rights.”
“People who have been detained for no reason other than suspicion, along with others who may have broken the law, cannot be put in a mass trial,” FMLN chief Jaime told AFP. Guevara.
However, the sociologist René Martínez believed that the measure is beneficial.
“The most important thing is the benefit to the population and that is what the measures seek and that is why people support them,” said the academic from the University of El Salvador.
For the NGO Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) with these trials it will be “impossible” to guarantee “a fair trial and a right to defense.”
“This makes us wonder if the government’s position and policy is to persecute gangs, organized crime, killing the rule of law and democracy,” Marcela Martino, deputy director for Central America and CEJIL Mexico.
The executive director of the Human Rights Commission of El Salvador, Miguel Montenegro, attributed this decree approved with the votes of the ruling party, which controls Congress, to electoral reasons. The measure “responds to an electoral situation that, as we are approaching the elections, is aimed at convincing those who are doubting the government,” Montenegro told AFP.
The decree establishes that detainees under the emergency regime can be imprisoned for up to 24 months without being brought to trial or released. The NGO Cristosal pointed out that the decree seeks to resolve “a series of processes that lack probative strength and solidity.” And Samuel Ramírez, from the Movement of Victims of the Regime, said that the rule “violates the rights of those who have nothing to do with the gangs, since they will be judged equally.”
Polls show that nine out of ten Salvadorans support Bukele’s administration, but there seems to be no such consensus on collective lawsuits. For the worker Virgilio Gutiérrez the decree “is fine.”
“Just as they wanted to do it (judge) individually, it doesn’t seem to me, it’s not correct, (it would take) a long time,” Gutiérrez said.
But lottery vendor Juan Mejía does not support these trials, because “the law says that detainees must be identified” before sentencing them.