U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Dominican Republic

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC   The Constitution of the Dominican Republic provides for a popularly elected President and a bicameral Congress. In practice, the system heavily favors the executive branch, headed by seven-term President Joaquin Balaguer. The Senate appoints justices to the Supreme Court, which heads an only nominally independent judiciary. Political parties representing the ideological spectrum from left to right freely participate in elections. The National Police, the National Department of Investigations, the National Drug Control Directorate (DNCD), and the military (army, air force, and navy) form the security services. The Government controls all the security services, which are generally responsive to civilian executive branch authority. However, some members of the security forces continued to commit human rights abuses with the tacit acquiescence of the civil authorities. The economy, once heavily dependent on sugar, has diversified; tourism and export processing zones (EPZ's) are now major sources of income and employment. State-owned firms such as the State Sugar Council (CEA), the Consortium of State Enterprises, and the Dominican Electricity Corporation remain heavily involved in the economy, and their financial and administrative difficulties still impede economic growth. Principal human rights problems included continuing instances of police killings of civilians, arbitrary detention and beatings of suspects, security services' refusal to obey judicial orders, judicial corruption, maladministration of the courts, poor prison conditions, and abuses of Haitian migrant workers. Workers in the state-owned sugar plantations and mills continued to work under deplorable conditions. EPZ workers achieved some gains with the signing of collective contracts and other agreements. Discrimination, violence against women, and prostitution are also serious problems.

Respect for Human Rights

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killings

There were no reports of political killings, but there were several instances of extrajudicial killings by the police. Police use of excessive force led to at least 26 civilian deaths. Some killings occurred as a result of personal disputes, but others clearly were the result of excessive force while persons were in custody. Authorities usually discharge police personnel for carrying out extrajudicial killings and submit their cases to civilian justice. In March three officers were dishonorably discharged and handed over to civilian justice after a 17-year-old boy died in their custody. Witnesses said the officers had beaten the young man before throwing him into their car. The case was still pending in court at year's end. In September two police officers were dishonorably discharged and handed over to civilian courts after investigators determined they had murdered two individuals accused by them of having robbed the house of one of the police officers. The officers shot the two victims several times and threw them off a bridge into the sea. One officer jumped in the water to finish the job when he saw one of the victims was still moving. The case was pending in court at the end of the year. Military courts try military personnel charged with extrajudicial killings. Police tribunals have on occasion tried, convicted, and sentenced personnel charged with extrajudicial killings. However, there were no cases reported during the year.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances. The 1994 disappearance of Autonomous University of Santo Domingo Professor Narciso Gonzalez remains unresolved. The Gonzalez family, assisted by the Dominican Human Rights Commission, filed a complaint in Santo Domingo courts pressing for a full investigation, but the courts have not pursued the case aggressively.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Torture and other forms of physical abuse are illegal, but there continued to be instances of security service personnel physically abusing detainees. The authorities usually order little or no punishment for perpetrators of such abuse. Although punishment may range up to 5 years' incarceration for serious cases of abuse, as a rule judges have sentenced convicted officials to sentences ranging from a 1-month suspension to 6 months' incarceration. Prisons are overcrowded, and health and sanitary conditions are substandard. Some prison personnel reportedly engage in extortion and other corrupt activities, and most prisoners find it necessary to rely on relatives or their own finances to be fed adequately. Prison authorities allowed gangs to operate inside the prisons; these gangs were responsible for several deaths and ran active drug markets and prostitution rings. Corrupt practices by prison personnel and overcrowding at the main La Victoria prison led to several days of rioting, resulting in the deaths of at least five inmates. Prison authorities subsequently transferred all of the prison personnel to other functions outside the prison and transferred several hundred prisoners to other facilities to ease the overcrowding. Medical care suffers from a lack of supplies and available physicians. Dominican authorities estimate the number of minors incarcerated in adult prisons at between 1,500 to 2,500 (see Section 5).

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution stipulates that authorities may detain suspects for a maximum of 48 hours for investigation before arraignment, after which they must charge or release them. However, in special circumstances, suspects may be detained for longer periods with the approval of the prosecutor's office. Security service officials continued routinely to violate constitutional provisions by detaining suspects for "investigation" or "interrogation" beyond the prescribed 48-hour limit. Law enforcement authorities traditionally detain all suspects and witnesses to a crime and use the investigative process to determine which ones are innocent and merit release and which ones they should continue to hold. Civil authorities have not employed sufficient efforts to address these widespread abuses. Despite announcements to the contrary, the DNCD and National Police continued to engage in indiscriminate roundups of people in poorer neighborhoods. Early in the year, the Supreme Court ruled against searches of homes by DNCD agents after 6 p.m. However, in November Congress amended the drug law to allow searches at any time of the day, as long as they are carried out in accordance with a written order by the Attorney General or the investigating prosecutor, and in the presence of a court official. The security services also continued occasionally to detain relatives of suspected criminals with the aim of forcing the surrender of suspects. Civil authorities have taken no action to curb these abuses. The National Police and the DNCD persisted in their refusal to release some prisoners and detainees who had been granted judicial release orders. Law enforcement and other governmental authorities cited judicial corruption as the justification for this noncompliance. In some of these cases involving narcotics or terrorist-related crimes, it appeared that evidence merited pursuing the cases in the judicial system. Although the right to judicial determination of the legality of detention exists, pretrial detention is legal and commonly employed. This custom, coupled with a lack of administrative and financial support for the system, creates a major backlog of cases, which in turn causes suspects to suffer long periods of pretrial detention that sometimes exceed possible sentences. While the law does not prohibit exile, there are no known cases of citizens in forced exile.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the Constitution stipulates an independent judiciary, in practice, interference from other public and private entities, including the executive branch, substantially undermines judicial independence. The judicial system is in a state of transition as the National Congress has failed to pass legislation which would create a National Judicial Council needed to implement constitutional reforms enacted in 1994. These changes would end the Senate's exclusive role in appointing judges and establish a professional career service for judges, including potential life-term appointments. Until these reforms are in place, the overall autonomy of the judiciary is in question. The Constitution provides for public trial. The courts normally appoint lawyers at public expense for indigent defendants in felony criminal cases but rarely in criminal misdemeanor cases. The judicial process is plagued by chronic delays; of the penal system's approximately 11,000 detainees, only about 10 percent have been convicted. As noted above, many suspects suffer long periods of pretrial detention that sometimes exceed maximum possible criminal penalties. The judicial system provides for bail. However, cases in which bail is posted rarely come to trial, circumventing the intended purpose of bail. Military or police courts have jurisdiction over members of the armed forces and police, but a military or police board frequently remands cases involving capital crimes (murder, rape, etc.) to civilian courts after review. There were no reports of political prisoners.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

Apart from occasional exceptions, the Government does not arbitrarily interfere with the private lives of persons or families and generally observes constitutional provisions against invasion of the home. The authorities may only search a residence in the presence of a prosecutor or an assistant prosecutor, except in cases of "hot pursuit" or instances where there is probable cause to believe that a crime is in progress.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The law provides for these freedoms, and the Government usually respects them in practice. Dominicans of all political persuasions exercise freedom of speech, but a 1971 law prohibits foreign-language broadcasts. The numerous privately owned radio and television stations broadcast all political points of view. The Government controls one television station but no major newspapers. Newspapers freely reflect independent and opposition points of view. Although journalists operate in a relatively tolerant environment, a certain amount of self-censorship exists for fear of retaliation, ranging from loss of influence to loss of one's job. Economic considerations also inhibit free expression, as all the principal media outlets are owned by powerful economic consortiums or wealthy, influential families. In addition, some journalists solicit, or are responsive to, bribes to generate reports. The DNCD waged a campaign to destroy material which it regards as promoting or condoning the use of drugs. Clothing and music tapes deemed by the DNCD to promote drug use were publicly incinerated, along with confiscated drugs. Some of these materials were forcibly removed from their owners. Public and private universities enjoy broad academic freedom. The main public university, the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo, with approximately 35,000 students, has no restrictions on enrollment and maintains a policy of nonintervention (other than curriculum development) in classroom affairs. The Government exerts no control over private universities except for the preservation of standards, and teachers are free to espouse their own theories without government oversight.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for these freedoms, which the Government commonly respects in practice. Outdoor public marches and meetings require permits which the Government usually grants. Political parties freely affiliate with their foreign counterpart organizations. Professional organizations of lawyers, doctors, teachers, and others function freely and can maintain relations with counterpart international bodies of diverse political philosophies.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution prohibits discrimination on religious grounds, and the Government does not interfere with the practice of religion.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

Citizens face no unusual legal restrictions on travel within or outside the country. Throughout the year, Dominican military personnel repatriated undocumented Haitian nationals believed to be in the country illegally. The expulsions occurred in various regions of the country; human rights groups estimated that the authorities expelled between several hundred and perhaps as many as 2,000 Haitians. Some of these were legal resident Haitians and persons of Haitian ancestry who may have claims to Dominican citizenship. The authorities did not allow the Haitians the opportunity to establish their possible claims to citizenship. Charges of recruitment of Haitians, some of them minors, under false pretenses to work on sugar plantations, increased in comparison to 1994 (see Section 6.c.). Since the 1991 coup in Haiti, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) accorded refugee status to 1,341 Haitians who fled to the Dominican Republic. Although the Government began processing petitions for Dominican recognition of the UNHCR wards in 1991, only 10 percent have been granted such status. Some Haitians returned to Haiti following the restoration of democracy there.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

In August the Supreme Court upheld the legalities of the constitutional reforms enacted in 1994, based on the Pact for Democracy. As a result of these reforms, presidential elections are scheduled for May 16, 1996. Among other things, the reforms also curtailed President Balaguer's current term to 2 years, prohibited consecutive presidential reelection, and established the threshold for victory in the first round at 50 percent of the vote. The Dominican Republic is a constitutional democracy. The President, all 150 members of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies, and the mayors and city council members of more than 100 municipalities are freely elected every 4 years by secret ballot and universal suffrage (except for active duty military and police, who may not vote). The President appoints the governors of the 29 provinces. Opposition groups of the left, right, and center operate openly. Although the nation has a functioning multiparty system, in practice the President dominates public policy formulation and implementation. He exercises his authority through use of the veto, discretion to act by degree, and influence as the leader of his party. The Congress traditionally has had limited powers, although the current Congress is showing greater autonomy than its predecessors in substantially modifying proposals submitted by the executive branch. The Congress also provides an open forum for the free exchange of views and debate. The governing Reformed Christian Social Party has a 1-vote majority in the 30-seat Senate when it combines its 14 votes with 1 vote from the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) and 1 vote from the Democratic Union (UD). Similarly, it has in coalition with the PLD a working plurality in the Chamber of Deputies. Women and minorities confront no serious legal or practical impediments to political participation. Women hold 8 of the country's 29 appointed governorships, 5 cabinet-level executive branch positions, 14 seats in the 120-member House of Deputies, and 1 seat in the 30-member Senate.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigations of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

Nongovernmental human rights organizations operate freely without government interference. In addition to the Dominican Human Rights Committee (CDH), several other Haitian, church, and labor groups exist. The Government has been slow to acknowledge requests for information and criticism from some international human rights organizations. It has refused to respond to criticisms leveled by the U.N. Human Rights Commission in 1993 regarding its treatment of Haitian refugees.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The law prohibits discrimination based on race and sex. Such discrimination exists in society, but the Government has not acknowledged its existence or made efforts to combat it.


Domestic violence and sexual harassment are widespread. According to one report, approximately 7,000 rapes occur annually, but victims report only 1,500 cases to the police. There are no laws protecting citizens from abuse by their spouses, and victims rarely report such abuse. Dominican women are victims of rings which smuggle third-world women to Europe to work as prostitutes in conditions rife with exploitation and mistreatment. The Government does not vigorously enforce prostitution laws but does periodically prosecute organized alien smuggling rings. Corruption and a reluctance to restrict emigration hinder enforcement of the law. Women traditionally have not shared equal social and economic status or opportunity with men, and men hold the overwhelming majority of leadership positions in all sectors. In many instances, women are paid less than men in jobs of equal content and equal skill level. Divorce is easily obtainable by either spouse, and women can hold property in their own names apart from their husbands. Congress for the second year in a row took no action on pending legislative proposals to enhance women's status under the Civil and Penal Codes.


The Government has not supported its professed commitment to child welfare with financial and human resources. Despite the existence of government institutions dedicated to child welfare, private social and religious organizations carry the principal burden. The most serious abuse involving children is the failure of the judicial system to respect the status of minors in criminal cases. In September the Congress passed legislation establishing minors' courts which are in part designed to alleviate this problem. The authorities sometimes treated minors as adults and incarcerated them in prison rather than juvenile detention centers. One group of concerned attorneys reported that there are more than 344 minors in the country's main prison. Prison authorities transferred some of these juveniles to juvenile centers or simply released others. A great many remain at the main prison, serving sentences longer than those the courts had prescribed. According to local monitors, the incidence of child abuse is underreported because of traditional beliefs that family problems should be dealt with inside the family. Sporadic instances of Haitian child labor on sugar plantations continued to occur (see Section 6.d.). A new Minor's Code went into effect on January 1. The Code contains provisions against child abuse, including physical and emotional mistreatment, sexual exploitation, and child labor. It also provides for removal of a mistreated or delinquent child to a protective environment.

People with Disabilities

Disabled persons encounter discrimination in employment and the provision of other services. Although a September 1991 law contains provisions for physical access for the disabled to all new public and private buildings, the authorities have not uniformly enforced this law.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Dominicans are strongly prejudiced against Haitians, many of whom are illegal immigrants and who constitute a significant percentage of the unskilled manual labor force. The Government has not acknowledged the existence of this discrimination nor made any efforts to combat it. Darker-skinned Dominicans also face informal barriers to social and economic advancement. Credible sources charge that the Government continues to refuse to recognize individuals of Haitian ancestry born in the country as Dominican citizens. Lack of documentation also sometimes hinders the ability of children of Haitian descent to attend school where there is one available; some parents fail to seek documentation for fear of being deported.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The Constitution provides for the freedom to organize labor unions and also for the right of workers to strike (and for private sector employers to lock out workers). All workers, except military and police, are free to organize, and workers in all sectors exercise this right. The new Labor Code enacted in 1992 significantly strengthened the right of freedom of association and removed some restrictions on the right to strike by narrowing the definition of essential services to exclude transportation, food services, and fuel services. Requirements for calling a strike include the support of an absolute majority of the workers of the company, a prior attempt to resolve the conflict through arbitration, written notification to the labor secretariat, and a 10-day waiting period following notification before proceeding with the strike. The Code also eliminated previous prohibitions against political and sympathy strikes. The Government respects association rights and places no obstacles to union registration, affiliations, or the ability to engage in legal strikes. Strikes in 1995 occurred mainly in the public sector. Nurses and doctors staged periodic strikes and walkouts. Employees of state-owned companies also staged strikes because of unpaid wages and benefits, as well as threats of job loss. In November the police broke up a legal strike by a recently formed union against the Korean-owned Bonahan Apparel Company. The police arrested 18 workers and released them only after direct intervention by the Labor Minister. The Labor Code specifies in detail the steps legally required to establish a union, federation, and confederation. The Code calls for automatic recognition of a union if the Government has not acted on its application within a specific time. In practice, the Government has readily facilitated recognition of labor organizations. Organized labor represents between 10 and 13 percent of the workforce and is divided among three major confederations, four minor confederations, and a number of independent unions. The International Labor Organization's Committee of Experts considers that the two-thirds majority vote required to form confederations is too high, but this has not impeded unions from joining together, for example, with the formation of the Autonomous Institutional Workers Central in August. Unions are independent of the Government and political parties, although sympathizers of various political parties are found in most union organizations. Labor unions can and do freely affiliate regionally and internationally.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

Collective bargaining is lawful and may take place in firms in which a union has gained the support of an absolute majority of the workers. Only a minority of companies has collective bargaining pacts. The Labor Code stipulates that workers cannot be dismissed because of their trade union membership or activities. The previous Code allowed arbitrary termination of a worker so long as severance pay was provided; the 1992 Code exempts from dismissal specific numbers of union organizers and officials. The number of union organizers or officials given protection from layoffs can total up to 20 members of a union in formation, between 5 to 10 members of a union executive council (depending on the size of the work force), and up to 3 members of a collective bargaining negotiating committee. Nonetheless, workers are at times fired without regard to the law. The 1992 Code established a system of labor courts for dealing with labor disputes, but their effectiveness is limited. Labor court employees halted their activities in the summer because of poor working conditions and lack of basic materials. The halt illustrated the new courts' operational shortcomings. On occasion, corrupt attorneys and court officials, acting with powers of attorney from unwitting workers, enforced spurious judgments against businesses and offices. The new courts are located in the two jurisdictions with the most labor activity, but the judicial problems which the courts were established to address still prevail in the rest of the country. Violations of freedom of association, the minimum wage, and overtime pay continue. In September authorities detained nearly 50 sugar industry union leaders and members, the majority of them for 24 hours or more. They held the three leaders of the country's two major sugar workers' federations for 8 hours when they attempted to meet with workers in two of the country's state-owned mills. The unionists were coordinating a strike to protest the nationwide 2-month suspension of 12,700 sugar workers. The Labor Code applies in the 32 established export processing zones which are comprised of more than 400 mostly U.S.-owned or associated companies and employ more than 170,000 workers, mostly women. Some EPZ companies have a history of discharging workers who attempt to organize unions. Although the Government registered more than 50 unions in the EPZ's since the new Labor Code went into effect in June 1992, fewer than 10 of these unions still have their membership intact. Some unions apparently ceased to function due to firings of union members, while some may have dissolved because of voluntary resignations or company closure. The Secretariat of Labor has brought criminal charges against several EPZ firms for Labor Code violations involving worker rights. The courts found in favor of management in the majority of cases concluded. The unions won two cases, a number of cases were under appeal, and others were still pending at year's end. The State Sugar Council employs workers from more than 100 unions. Dominican workers predominate in most of the unions, although between two and five unions are Haitian-dominated. The CEA has long maintained a negative attitude to additional organizing efforts both by Dominicans and by Haitians.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor. During previous years, the Government and the CEA forcibly recruited Haitian seasonal agricultural workers and then restricted them to specific sugar plantations. The CEA denied that it used paid recruiters inside Haiti to obtain workers, and there is no conclusive evidence that either practice occurred to any significant degree in 1995. In July the Haitian ambassador publicly accused the Dominican armed forces of forcibly recruiting Haitians already in the country to work in sugar plantations far from their places of residence. There are no firm statistics on the number of cane cutters on CEA plantations; most estimates place the number at as many as 42,000, of which up to 30 percent are Haitians. Haitian sugar cane workers continued to encounter restrictions on their freedom of movement. These included the presence of armed guards in and around various sugar plantations and the sequestering of workers' belongings in order to discourage their movement to other CEA plantations or other types of employment. The CEA and the Dominican Office of Immigration initiated a program in late 1991 to issue 1-year temporary work permits to regularize the status of the immigrant laborers. This program documents the Haitians' right to work but also imposes a contractual obligation on the workers to remain in a specific area for the duration of the work contract. Many Haitians do not understand the contractual process, and work conditions tantamount to indentured servitude prevail. According to the most recent survey (1993) by an independent polling firm, 50 percent of all itinerant Haitian workers possessed permits. There are no figures available on the number of illegal Haitian cane and coffee workers deported in 1995, but the practice continued, depending upon the demand for labor and the law enforcement capabilities of the authorities.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The Labor Code prohibits employment of youth under 14 years of age and places various restrictions on the employment of youth under age 16. These restrictions include a limitation of no more than 6 hours of daily work, no employment in dangerous occupations or jobs involving the provision of intoxicating beverages, and limitations on nighttime work. In practice, employers ignore many of the child labor restrictions. Dominican law requires 6 years of compulsory formal education. The high level of unemployment and the lack of a social safety net create pressures on families to allow children to earn supplemental income. A U.N. Children's Fund study estimated that approximately 58,000 minors work as itinerant vendors in occupations such as shining shoes, selling newspapers, and cleaning cars. During the past few years, the Labor Secretariat made some effort to enforce the law in cases where companies employed underage workers, but penalties were largely limited to small fines. Some young workers obtained work permits and continued their employment; those unable to obtain permits were dismissed. Instances of child labor in CEA sugar plantations have diminished greatly. The CEA and the Labor Secretariat took steps to discourage child labor, and in 1995 it occurred in only isolated instances, most involving children accompanying their fathers into the fields. Some underage Haitians do work in the state cane fields, but they usually steadfastly claim that they are of adult age, making it difficult to prove otherwise.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Constitution provides the Government with legal authority to set minimum wage levels, and the Labor Code assigns this task to a National Salary Committee. Congress may also enact minimum wage legislation. Minimum wage raises have not compensated for the loss of purchasing power, and scheduled wage increases in May only provided partial relief. Most workers receive only the minimum wage, which averages little more than $100 per month (1,340 pesos), depending on the sector and employer size. The minimum wage represents only 20 percent of the estimated monthly cost of living for an average-sized family in Santo Domingo. As a result, many people hold more than one job. The Labor Code establishes a standard work period of 8 hours per day and 44 hours per week. The Code also stipulates that all workers are entitled to 36 hours of uninterrupted rest each week. In practice, a typical workweek is Monday through Friday plus a half day on Saturday, but longer hours are not unusual. The Code grants workers a 35-percent wage differential for work over 44 hours and up to 68 hours per week and a 100 percent differential for any hours above 68 hours per week. The Dominican Social Security Institute (IDSS) sets workplace safety and health conditions but these frequently do not meet legal standards. The Labor Code sets nonhealth safety standards. The existing social security system does not apply to all workers and is underfunded. Furthermore, some employers charge workers for social security coverage but fail to pass the payments on to the IDSS. As a result, benefits are low, payments often delayed, and medical care is limited and available only in the major cities. Workplace regulations and their enforcement in the EPZ's do not differ from those in the country at large, although working conditions are sometimes better. Some companies in privately owned EPZ's enforce much higher worker safety and health standards. Both the IDSS and the Labor Secretariat have small corps of inspectors charged with enforcing standards. Although new labor inspectors undergo a rigorous professional selection process, these posts were customarily filled through political patronage, and some inspectors continue to have a reputation for corruption. In practice, workers cannot remove themselves from hazardous workplace situations without jeopardy to continued employment. Conditions for agricultural workers are in general much worse, especially in the sugar industry. Although the CEA readily cooperates with nongovernmental organizations active in efforts to improve the conditions of sugar cane workers, in some cases the CEA and the Government failed to take measures to implement written agreements designed to overcome the problems facing sugar cane workers. Cane cutters on CEA plantations are paid by weight of cut cane rather than hours worked and thus they must work significantly more hours than the standard workweek to earn a wage approaching that of workers in other industries. Cane cutters also faced cheating during the weighing of their cut cane. Although the CEA and the Labor Secretariat signed an agreement with labor unions to allow union officials to assist the Labor Secretariat in the inspection and monitoring of CEA weight stations, they took no action to implement the agreement. Many worker villages continued to suffer high rates of disease and a lack of schooling, medical facilities, running water, and sewage systems.

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