For a country that prides itself on respect for human rights, the concept of innocent until proven guilty is frequently overlooked.
Depending on the crime, a suspect may be tossed into the general prison population for months, even years, without the chance to present a defense. On the other hand, the flagrancia courts convict and sentence without the suspect having sufficient time to mount a defense.
The issue of excessive preventative detention, came to light when Kathya Jiménez Fernández, a criminal judge, ordered that two Mexican drug suspects be placed in home detention and liberated from prison. The decision created a firestorm among police officials and potential neighbors. The judge correctly reasoned that the men had spent seven months in prison without significant action by prosecutors.
Costa Rica does not have a speedy trial law, and some of these cases drag on for years only to have the jailed suspect found innocent. Sometimes police and prosecutors are happy that suspects are confined for lengthy periods pre-trial. They figure that the fickle Costa Rican courts might find the suspect innocent, but he or she will at least have served some time. Pre-trial detention should be reserved for cases where there is a possibility of danger to the public from the suspect.
A case in point is the hotel guard with the last name of Guevara, who is accused of murder for shooting a 16-year-old U.S. tourist by accident in La Fortuna last week. Prosecutors at first sought a year of preventative detention. A judge ordered six months. This case is not rocket science. The man is guilty of having an unlicensed gun and working without residency. But he is not guilty of murder, as prosecutors allege. A trial could easily be held in a month or two. Instead the man will languish in prison for months while prosecutors handle other cases. Out of sight is out of mind.
Another human rights violation is mixing the pre-trial prison population with the convicted felons. Pre-trial inmates deserve special treatment if one assumes they are innocent until proved guilty.
We are reminded of the case of Roger Crouse, the Playa del Coco bar owner who was charged with murder for shooting a man who attacked him with a knife. He was not a paragon of virtue, but the case appeared cut and dried. The local bad guy
created a scene, and police had to detain and confine him. A few hours later they inexplicably released the man, who told them he was going to return to the bar and kill Crouse. He tried. He found another knife. Crouse had a gun.
So investigators arrested Crouse, who spent a year in jail before there was a trial. His bar was sacked by locals. His limo business was vandalized into junk. He periodically would call reporters to talk about his latest robbery by fellow inmates.
We think that Crouse would have been convicted without the continual carping by A.M. Costa Rica reporters. Why? There would have been a significant civil settlement in favor of the family of the dead man. Prosecutors were trying to wear him down.
Another case in point is the man, Carlos Pascall, who was detained in Limón last week in a money laundering investigation. In a made-for-television raid, police broke down his front door and smashed through an interior door while Pascall, dressed only in underpants, calmly watched from a second-floor balcony. They threw him to the floor to cuff him. He was ordered jailed for investigation.
This is a case prosecutors have been following since 2004. Is there any reason to put Pascall in jail before a trial? He has millions in investments here as well as being the president of a first division soccer team.
Luis Milanes, who admits his investors lost some $200 million when he fled in 2002, returned to Costa Rican in 2009 and spent just one day in jail. He has been free to run his casino businesses for two years.
Why is there such a difference in the treatment of these men? We think Pascal should be freed before trial, and so should Milanes. But we think the trial should be completed in a couple of months, not a couple of years.
On the other hand, once someone is convicted, there should be strong consideration of prison even though appeals have been filed in the case. Monday the Judicial Investigating Organization released the photos of 12 men who have been convicted of such crimes as murder, aggravated robbery and rape. They were convicted and allowed to wander off while an appeal was heard. This is wacky.