the criminal law changes passed by the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador violate “fundamental guarantees of due process and the rights of the child”, according to to a statement issued Friday by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The amendments were proposed by President Nayib Bukele in response to several instances of deadly gang-related violencewhich killed an estimated 62 people on March 26 alone.
The statement noted that the amendments “aallow judges to imprison children as young as 12, restrict freedom of expression and dangerously expand the use of pre-trial detention and anti-terrorism legislation. The measures were approved days after the assembly imposed a “state of emergency” to deal with rising murders by criminal gangs.
Amendments adopted on March 30 lowered the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 12 for children accused of belonging to “terrorist groups or any other criminal gang”. The measures also allow children aged 12 to 16 to be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison and children aged 16 to 20 to up to 20 years.
Legislation passed on April 5 allows law enforcement officials to file criminal charges against those accused of creating or helping to create “any kind of publication, image, graffiti or other form of visual expression that explicitly or implicitly conveys messages or alludes to the various types of gangs. It allows these people to be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.
The law also allows for criminal prosecution of the media for reproducing or transmitting messages or statements created or allegedly created by gangs that are likely to generate a state of anxiety and panic among the general public.
The statement highlighted the broad implications of the amendments:
These overbroad provisions could easily be used to target critics and journalists. They are inconsistent with international human rights protections for freedom of expression and association, which may only be restricted where necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate aim, such as protecting national security or the rights from others.