Haiti sexual violence on the rise since quake: HRW

Haiti's devastating earthquake last year has severely compromised the state's ability to safeguard basic human rights, with women and girls more at risk of sexual violence in displaced persons' camps, a rights group said on Monday.

Human Rights Watch, in its 2011 World Report, said last year's quake, which killed over 220,000 people and left over a million homeless, "exacerbated" an already problematic record of human rights abuses at the hands of authorities and violent offenders -- thousands of whom escaped prison after the disaster.

With hundreds of thousands of quake survivors crowded into squalid tent cities in and around the capital, the report noted that while high rates of sexual violence existed in Haiti before the disaster, the "precarious safety situation in the informal camps has left women and girls even more vulnerable."

From February to April last year, there were 534 arrests involving sexual violence, said the report, with inconsistent data from officials indicating "a lack of coordinated governmental response" to the sex attacks in the camps.

Kidnapping was also on the rise in the wake of the earthquake, compared to 2009, with the rate of abductions increasing 33 percent in the first eight months of 2010 compared to a year earlier.

The country, the poorest in the Americas, is also suffering from a lack of human rights defenders -- with three prominent key women's rights defenders killed in the quake.

In a number of instances, also, activists working to fight pervasive gender-based violence in the tent camps have been forced to relocated following threats from criminal gangs, said HRW.»
Even before the January 12, 2010 quake "Haiti's prison system suffered from chronic and severe overcrowding," with almost 80 percent of all inmates being pre-trial detainees.

The loss of judicial files in the quake has increased the number of "prolonged pre-trial or arbitrary detentions and detentions of people never formally charged," said the HRW report, citing a United Nations assessment.

The New York-based group also said that that damage to prison buildings limited cell space for those detainees, and "even more dire prison conditions than existed before."

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