Commission Calls for Guatemala to Protect Patients

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MEXICO CITY -- An international human rights commission has told Guatemala that it must take steps to protect patients at a psychiatric hospital where two human rights groups found them subjected to abuse and terror at the hands of gangs and guards.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights this week acted on the findings of the groups, including Disability Rights International, which has investigated psychiatric hospitals across Latin America and said that the Federico Mora Hospital in Guatemala City was among the most troubling.

Children and adults were abused at the hospital, basic medical care was denied and women were subjected to sex trafficking, often controlled by guards from the national police and gang members given access to the hospital from an adjacent prison, the commission said.

On an inspection of the grounds last summer, investigators from Disability Rights International and the Office of Human Rights of the Archdiocese of Guatemala City, along with a reporter, found evidence of neglect.

Patients lay about on the ground in dirty or tattered clothing, while others were tied to chairs and beds in dank, dreary buildings -- freshly scrubbed for the inspection, it appeared, by the suffocating scent of bleach -- or wandered around with no purpose or attention.

A woman locked in an isolation cell moaned in confusion, and staff members reported shortages of medicine and inconsistent care by doctors. A Chilean psychiatrist accompanying the investigators examined several patients and found signs that some had been given improper doses or poorly prepared medications.

Patients with mental, psychiatric and physical disabilities, including many accused of violent crimes, are sent to the hospital and mixed together.

Privately, the groups said in a report, staff members reported that the guards and the gangs controlled the place and fomented a climate of fear.

"This is not a safe place for people with mental disabilities -- or anyone," said Eric Rosenthal, executive director of Disability Rights International, based in Washington. "Everyone in this facility could be immediately moved to safe places in the community -- starting with the children and women, who are most at-risk."

Guatemalan officials did not respond to requests for comment.

The commission, an arm of the Organization of American States, did not rule on the merits of the case but found sufficient concern to ask the Guatemalan government to take several steps, including separating children from adults, providing appropriate medical care and putting in place measures to prevent patients from being abused by guards, staff members and other patients.

It asked Guatemala to report back on its progress in a month, but the commission has no official power to compel the changes. Still, few countries proclaiming their respect for human rights, as Guatemala has done, wish to have actions pending in the commission.

The commission's acceptance of the groups' "precautionary measures petition" is a rare step; last year it granted only 57 such requests out of the 422 it received.

Disability Rights International has focused on care in psychiatric facilities, calling them an area often neglected or mismanaged in several countries. Two years ago it issued a report condemning the level of care for the mentally and physically disabled in Mexico, prompting the government to promise changes, though human rights groups have said problems persist.

Still, Mr. Rosenthal of Disability Rights International said the Guatemala ruling would serve notice on governments. He said the group would seek a settlement with the government that would open the door to more community-based clinics and care for people with disabilities.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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