I/A Court H.R., Case of Chinchilla Sandoval et al. v. Guatemala. Preliminary Objection, Merits, Reparations and Costs. Judgment of February 29, 2016. Series C No. 312.

Non official brief

[This summary was developed by the Secretariat of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. It relates only to the merits and reparations aspects of the judgment. A more detailed, official abstract (in Spanish only) is available on that Court’s website: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/.] 



Facts – In 1995 Ms María Inés Chinchilla Sandoval was sentenced to thirty years’ imprisonment for aggravated theft and manslaughter. She served her sentence in a prison for women in Guatemala. She suffered from diabetes and other ailments and between 1997 and 2004 her health progressively deteriorated causing her physical and sensory disabilities. In particular, she had to have a leg amputated and was confined to a wheelchair. She also suffered partial loss of sight. Between 2002 and 2004 her lawyer applied for her early release on four occasions. Even though the prison clearly lacked the technical, professional and medical capacity to provide the applicant with adequate treatment, the judge dismissed all four applications. On 25 May 2004, while in prison, Ms Chinchilla fell down a flight of stairs in her wheelchair. She was aided by   a group of inmates and later by a prison nurse, but died shortly afterwards. The investigation into her death was discontinued because the autopsy did not reveal any harmful substances in her body.


(a)     Articles 5(1) (right to personal integrity) and 4(1) (right to life), in relation to Article 1(1) (obligation to respect and ensure rights without discrimination) of the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR) – The Inter-American Court reiterated the State´s special obligation to guarantee the rights of individuals deprived of their liberty. The Court deter- mined that the right to life of persons deprived of their liberty also implies the State’s obligation to secure their physical and mental health, specifically through the provision of regular medical check-ups, as well as adequate, timely and, where appropriate, specialised medical treatment in accordance with their special needs. The Court highlighted that the lack of adequate medical care for persons deprived of their liberty and in the custody of the State could be considered a violation of Article 5(1) and 5(2)    of the ACHR, depending on their specific circumstances, such as their state of health or the type of illness from which they were suffering, the period for which they had been without medical attention, the cumulative physical and mental effects and, in some cases, their sex and age. The Court stressed that in the present case, the burden of proof rested on the State.


The Court considered that the State´s special obligation to guarantee the rights   of   individuals deprived of their liberty can be conditioned, underscored or defined according to the type of illness, particularly if it is terminal or liable to be complicated or aggravated by either the individual’s specific circumstances, the conditions of his or her detention or the actual health-care capacities of the prison or the authorities in charge. This obligation rests both with the penitentiary and the judicial authorities which, of their own initiative or at the request of the person concerned, must exercise judicial control with respect to the guarantees for persons deprived of their liberty.


Moreover, the Court held that persons deprived of their liberty suffering from serious, chronic or terminal illness should not remain in prison except where the State could ensure that they had adequate medical-care units, with equipment and qualified personnel, in which they could be provided with specialised care and treatment. The State must also provide adequate food and diets as prescribed. The Court also observed that States have the obligation to ensure that medical records be kept for any person entering a detention centre.


In the present case, the Court found that the State could not prove that Ms Chinchilla had medical records, that adequate food and medicines had been regularly administered, and that she had received periodic and systematic medical care for her illnesses. The authorities had assessed her ailments and disability but had not prevented the aggravation of her condition by ensuring periodic, adequate and systematic medical care and super- vision, in particular through the provision of an appropriate diet, rehabilitation and other necessary facilities.


The Court stated that if the State had no means     to guarantee such medical care and supervision within the prison, a mechanism or protocol for systematic, diligent and opportune treatment should have been established, since the procedure for outside consultation was not swift enough to guarantee appropriate medical treatment, particularly in the event of an emergency. The procedures set up for external consultation in hospitals were not swift enough to effectively allow for timely medical treatment. For the aforementioned reasons, the Court concluded that the State had not guaranteed Ms Chinchilla’s rights to personal integrity and to life during her detention.


With regard to Ms Chinchilla’s disability, the Court held, relying inter alia on the ECHR Case of Mircea Dumitrescu v. Romania (14609/10, 30 July 2013), that the State had the obligation to guarantee to prisoners with disabilities access to different prison areas, including through making reasonable infra- structure adjustments to allow for as much independence as possible and equal conditions when compared to the conditions of inmates in good health. The Court considered that the State should have provided access to reasonable means for rehabilitation. In this respect, it found that Ms Chinchilla had been discriminated against on account of her disabilities and that her conditions of detention were not compatible with her right to physical and mental integrity.


The Court also concluded that the State had not guaranteed diligent medical attention on the day of her death.

Conclusion: violation (unanimously).


(b)     Reparations – The Inter-American Court established that the judgment constituted per se a form of reparation and ordered the State to: (i) adopt measures to train judicial authorities in charge of the execution of penalties as well as prison staff and other competent authorities who deal with prisoners in order to adequately fulfil their role as guarantors of prisoners’ rights; (ii) publish the judgment and its official summary, and (iii) pay compensation in respect of pecuniary and non-pecuniary damage, as well as costs and expenses.