Inter-American Commission Takes U.S. Human Rights Abuse Case for First Time

Friday, May 19, 2017
Border Patrol agents (R) look on during protest at U.S.-Mexico border over 2010 murder (photo: AFSC)

By Bianca Bruno, Courthouse News Service


SAN DIEGO (CN) – In the first case of its kind, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has given the United States three months to respond to charges of abuse of human rights, from the family of a man killed by Border Patrol agents in 2010.


Border watchers consider it a major test of the Trump administration’s stand on immigration, crime and law enforcement.


The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is a branch of the Organization of American States, created in 1959 “to promote and protect human rights in the American hemisphere,” according to the IACHR web page. Its seven-member board is based in Washington, D.C., where it also maintains the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which was created in 1979. The OAS, which now has 35 member states, was created by charter in 1948 and began operating in December 1951. Its charter has been amended four times since then.


The IACHR will investigate the case of Anastasio Hernandez-Rojas, an undocumented, longtime San Diego resident who was beaten to death in 2010 by Border Patrol agents after they caught him crossing the border.


Hernandez-Rojas was in a coma in a hospital for two days before his family decided to take him off life support. His death was ruled a homicide by the Medical Examiner’s Office.


The Department of Justice in 2015 declined to file criminal charges against the Border Patrol agents, saying there was insufficient evidence to pursue a criminal case.


But the United States agreed in March this year to pay $1 million to settle a civil case brought by Hernandez-Rojas’ family in San Diego Federal Court. That settlement came after seven years of litigation that shed light on the lack of oversight in the nation’s largest law enforcement agency.


Maria Puga, Hernandez-Rojas’ widow, said through a Spanish translator Wednesday that when she learned that “the government considered the agents innocent, it was a slap in the face to us, with all the evidence.”


“In that moment, I said, ‘No, justice must be served,’ and that’s why we’re here. There are other cases and similar circumstances that must be solved. We want justice for all the families who have been victimized by Border Patrol.”


While the settlement ended the litigation in the U.S. judicial system – which advocates said Wednesday “failed” the Hernandez-Rojas family – the IACHR has accepted the petition (pdf) the family submitted in March 2016. The family got word on May 10 that their case had been taken up by the commission.


The commission gave the United States until Aug. 10 to respond to the allegations that Border Patrol agents used excessive force which led to the death of the husband and father of five, and that federal agents obstructed justice during the investigation.


The family says Border Patrol agents destroyed evidence captured by witnesses on cellphones and tampered with surveillance footage of the incident before handing it over to investigators.


It is the first time the commission has taken up a claim for extrajudicial killing, torture and obstruction of justice in the United States.


Roxanna Altholz, the family’s attorney and associate director of the UC Berkeley Law School’s Human Rights Law Clinic, said the case will test if the U.S. government will cooperate and respond to the petition.


She said the Obama administration “had a policy of robust and constructive engagement” in responding to other cases filed with the commission, but whether the Trump administration will take the same approach remains unclear.


However, the Trump administration sent no one to an IACHR hearing in March in San Diego, according to Andrea Guerrero, executive director of Alliance San Diego, a 10-year-old civil rights group. She said it was the first time in years that the United States missed an IACHR hearing.


“We have doubts about what they’ll do about this case,” Guerrero said. “We hope and expect them to respond, but we have our eyes wide open. The way the government has been responding to other serious requests for evidence, including the Russia investigation, makes us think twice.”


Guerrero said victims in other countries regularly file petitions with the commission, but that “compared to other countries, the U.S. has a fair and robust judicial system,” so such petitions are unusual in the United States.


The family hopes the IAHRC will recommend creation of an oversight arm in Customs and Border Protection, to investigate complaints against agents. They also want an apology and admission of responsibility for their husband and father’s death, Guerrero said.


Barring that, she said, the United States “will have abdicated its moral authority to ask other countries to comply with international human rights laws.”


If the government does not respond by Aug. 10, the IACHR could issue default judgment in favor of the Hernandez-Rojas family, accepting the facts presented against the government as true.


To Learn More:

Border Patrol Agents Cleared in Shooting Deaths (by Elliot Spagat, Associated Press)

Teen, a U.S. Citizen, Sues Border Patrol for “Inhuman and Degrading” Search (by Jamie Ross, Courthouse News Service)

67 Border Patrol Shooting Internal Investigations; No Criminal Charges (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

U.S. Courts Struggle with Case of Border Patrol Agent who Shot to Death a Teenager on the other Side of the Border (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Danny Biederman, AllGov)

Senate Homeland Security Committee Approves Bill to Allow Border Patrol to Waive Laws within 100 Miles of Mexican Border (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Danny Biederman, AllGov)

Border Patrol Sued for Killing a Picnicker in Mexico (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Border Patrol Used Dubious Tactics to Create Pretext to Justify Shootings; CBP Tried to Bury Scathing Report (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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