Costa Rica

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.

There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.

The law prohibits such practices, and there were no reports that government officials employed them during the year.

Impunity was not a significant problem in the security forces.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions were harsh due to gross overcrowding, inadequate sanitary conditions, difficulties obtaining medical care, and violence among prisoners.

Physical Conditions: Overcrowding was a problem. As of July the prison population exceeded the designed capacity of prisons by 27 percent, according to official statistics. Although the Ministry of Justice made efforts to expand prison capacity and improve conditions in accordance with international standards, a majority of prisons, as well as the comprehensive care units, remained overcrowded, with the population in pretrial detention experiencing the most overcrowding. Authorities held male pretrial detainees with convicted prisoners on occasion.

The Ministry of Justice was responsible for the prison system, while the Immigration Office maintained a migration facility in Heredia holding illegal migrants until they were deported or regularized their migration status.

Overcrowding continued to make security and control difficult. On May 25, a prisoner died after a dispute among prisoners at La Reforma Prison. When police opened the gate of the cell module to calm down prisoners, there was a stampede; two prisoners were seriously injured with a knife, one of whom died later at a hospital.

Poor conditions included inadequate space for resting, deteriorated mattresses on the floor, and inadequate access to health services. Illegal narcotics were readily available in the prisons, and drug abuse was common. In the San Sebastian detention center, where most of the prisoners in pretrial detention were held, prisoners lived in unsanitary conditions.

Administration: The Ombudsman’s Office investigated all prisoner complaints, including credible allegations of mistreatment.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted independent monitoring of prison conditions by international and local human rights observers. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) monitored the migration detention facility, and the government ombudsman monitored all other detention centers, with UNHCR visiting monthly and the ombudsman preparing annual reports.

The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right for any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government generally observed these requirements.

The law requires issuance of judicial warrants before police may make an arrest, except where probable cause is evident to the arresting officer. The law entitles a detainee to a judicial determination of the legality of detention during arraignment before a judge within 24 hours of arrest. The law provides for the right to post bail and prompt access to an attorney and family members. Authorities generally observed these rights. Indigent persons have access to a public attorney at government expense. Those without sufficient personal funds are also able to use the services of a public defender. With judicial authorization, authorities may hold a suspect incommunicado for 48 hours after arrest or, under special circumstances, for up to 10 days. Special circumstances include cases in which pretrial detention previously was ordered and there is reason to believe a suspect may reach an agreement with accomplices or may obstruct the investigation. Suspects were allowed access to attorneys immediately before submitting statements before a judge. Authorities promptly informed suspects of any offenses under investigation. Habeas corpus provides legal protection for citizens against threats from police; it also requires judges to give a clear explanation of the legal basis for detention of and evidence against a suspect.

Arbitrary Arrest: On June 30, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court ruled against the state for an “unreasonable, disproportionate, and unnecessary” detention of an individual for six hours on June 16. Judicial police did not explain to the detainee the reasons for taking him into custody and did not show him an arrest warrant or any evidence of a crime. Police were also criticized for detaining individuals protesting COVID-19 lockdown measures. On August 7, the Constitutional Chamber ruled in favor of an activist detained on June 24 by uniformed police while she was protesting a lockdown in Tamarindo, Guanacaste.

Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention was a problem. According to the Ministry of Justice, as of June persons in pretrial detention constituted approximately 20 percent of the prison population, compared with 22 percent in 2019. The average length of pretrial detention was 90 to 180 days. In some cases delays were due to pending criminal investigations and lengthy legal procedures. In other cases the delays were a result of court backlogs. The length of pretrial detention generally did not equal or exceed the maximum sentence for the alleged crime. The law establishes that preventive detention should be proportional to the sentence for the alleged crime, and authorities generally complied with that mandate.

The law provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality.

The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right.

All defendants have the right to the presumption of innocence, to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges, and to trial without undue delay. In practice, however, the legal system experienced significant delays in the adjudication of criminal cases and civil disputes and a growing workload.

All trials, except those that include juvenile defendants, are public. Trials that involve victims or witnesses who are minors are closed during the portion of the trial in which the minor is called to testify. Defendants have the right to be present during trial and communicate with an attorney of choice in a timely manner or to have one provided at public expense. Defendants enjoy the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense and free assistance of an interpreter as necessary. Defendants may confront prosecution or plaintiff witnesses and present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. Defendants have the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Defendants have the right to appeal.

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

An independent and impartial judiciary presides over lawsuits in civil matters, including human rights violations. Individuals or organizations may seek civil remedies for human rights abuses through domestic courts or through administrative or other mechanisms established by law. Individuals and organizations may appeal adverse domestic decisions to regional human rights bodies.

The law prohibits such actions, and there were no reports the government failed to respect these prohibitions.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: On July 15, a daily newspaper filed a petition for constitutional protection before the Constitutional Court against the government for allegedly denying access to information during the daily coronavirus pandemic press briefings, arguing that journalists should not be limited in the number of questions they ask. The association of journalists also pressed the government to explain its communication strategy.

Internet Freedom

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private communications without appropriate legal authority.

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

Not applicable.

The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has an established system for providing protection to refugees. The law requires authorities to process the claims within three months of receipt, but decisions took an average of 24 months and an additional 12 months for the appeals process.

The coronavirus pandemic affected persons seeking asylum. During the first months of the year, the Migration Authority handled a growing number of migrants requesting refugee status, with the majority from Nicaragua. The number of asylum seekers dropped significantly when Costa Rica closed its borders in March, from an average of 2,000 new claims per month to fewer than 100 per month. Asylum seekers could seek refugee status at the borders only. Submission of asylum claims and interviews were conducted only at the borders, except in cases in which individuals were known to be at immediate risk or for national security reasons. As of March 17, asylum seekers filed claims by email if they were in the country before the pandemic started. As of July migration authorities reported receiving 11,022 asylum claims, of which three-fourths were made by Nicaraguans. The average time for resolving a pending asylum claim was 24 months from the submission of the asylum request; however, after March 17, no interviews were scheduled due to COVID-19. As of July the Migration Authority estimated 2,500 Nicaraguan asylum seekers had withdrawn their asylum requests and decided to return to Nicaragua.

As of June 30, the Appeals Tribunal, which adjudicates all migration appeals, had a backlog of 361 asylum cases but stated these figures would increase as pending claims moved to the appeals process. UNHCR provided support to the Refugee Unit and the Appeals Tribunal to hire additional legal and administrative personnel to assist with reduction of the backlog and to continue a process of regionalization of services.

Employment: Refugee regulations provide asylum seekers an opportunity to obtain work permits if they have to wait beyond the three months the law allows for a decision on their asylum claim (which occurred in virtually all cases). The waiting period for a work permit was compounded by the months-long delay most asylum seekers faced in obtaining an appointment to file an asylum application, at which point the three-month period begins. Refugees and asylum seekers reported that job opportunities were scarce. In the case of professionals, refugees and asylum seekers faced significant bureaucratic processes in obtaining a license to practice locally. The Refugee Unit continued receiving requests by email and issuing work permits during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Access to Basic Services: By law asylum seekers and refugees have access to public services and social welfare programs, but access was often hampered by lack of knowledge about their status in the country, failure of service providers to recognize the identification provided to asylum seekers by the Migration Authority, and feelings of xenophobia among some service providers. For example, asylum seekers without employers (who constituted the majority of asylum seekers) faced restrictions when enrolling voluntarily as independent workers in the public health system.

Asylum seekers received provisional refugee status documents legalizing their status after appearing for an interview with the General Directorate of Immigration, for which the estimated wait time was eight months before the pandemic; however, the interview process was suspended due to the COVID-19 restrictions. Provisional refugee identity cards do not resemble other national identity documents, and although government authorities generally accepted them, many private citizens did not. Upon receiving refugee status, which typically took two years, refugees could obtain an identity document similar to those used by nationals at a cost of 40,000 colones ($68), renewable every two years.

Refugees and asylum seekers reported that access to health services was difficult. They qualified for public health services only if they were minors, pregnant, or facing a life-threatening emergency, but some individuals reported being denied services even in emergency situations. In February, UNHCR signed an agreement with the social security system to broaden health insurance coverage for refugees and asylum seekers.

Displaced university students who had fled Nicaragua due to harassment for their political opposition activities reported difficulty registering for classes because Costa Rican institutions were inflexible in requiring academic records that the students could not obtain from Nicaraguan authorities.

Durable Solutions: The government implemented a Protection Transfer Arrangement in coordination with UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration for refugee resettlement in third countries. In September, the government suspended resettlement operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Additional guidance was released in November. For those obtaining refugee status, the government was committed to their local integration both legally and socially and to facilitating their naturalization process.

Citizenship is obtained from birth within the country’s territory or can be derived if either parent is Costa Rican. There continued to be problems of statelessness of indigenous children and children of seasonal workers in the border areas with Panama and Nicaragua, derived from the difficulties linked to birth registrations. Members of the Ngobe-Bugle indigenous group from Panama often worked on Costa Rican farms and occasionally gave birth there. In these cases parents did not register Ngobe-Bugle children as Costa Rican citizens at birth because they did not think it necessary, although the children lacked registration in Panama as well. Government authorities worked with UNHCR on a program of birth registration and provision of identification documents to stateless persons known as Chiriticos. Mobile teams went to remote coffee-growing areas for case identification and registration. UNHCR and the National Civil Registry continued a project along the northern border for individuals of Nicaraguan origin to facilitate procedures for late birth registration.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: In 2018 voters elected Citizen’s Action Party’s (PAC) Carlos Alvarado president during a second round of elections, after no candidate achieved 40 percent of the first-round vote. Presidential and legislative elections are simultaneous. In 2018 legislative elections, the National Liberation Party (PLN) gained the most seats, but it did not achieve a majority in the National Assembly. In internal legislative elections in May, the Christian evangelical National Restoration Party won the presidency of the National Assembly for one year in an alliance that included PAC and PLN.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate.

Women and persons of African descent were represented in government, but indigenous persons were not. In national elections political parties must guarantee gender parity across their electoral slates and confirm that gender parity extends vertically. The electoral code requires that a minimum of 50 percent of candidates for elective office be women, with their names placed alternately with men on the ballots by party slate.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government generally implemented the law effectively. There were isolated reports of government corruption during the year.

Corruption: On February 28, the attorney general, together with judicial police officers, searched the Presidency as part of an investigation for the alleged breach of personal data, abuse of authority, and prevarication due to the creation of a data analysis unit in 2018 without legal foundation. On February 17, the government published an executive order in the official gazette indicating the presidential data analysis unit would have access to confidential information of citizens; however, on February 21, the government annulled the executive order due to the turmoil it caused. On March 4, Minister of the Presidency Victor Morales resigned for having approved the executive order. The Ombudsman’s Office began an administrative investigation, and the National Assembly formed a special committee to investigate the creation of the data analysis unit.

Financial Disclosure: Public officials are subject to financial disclosure laws that require senior officials to submit sworn declarations of income, assets, and liabilities. The law requires income and asset disclosure by appointed and elected officials. The content of the declarations is not available to the public. The law stipulates administrative sanctions for noncompliance and identifies which assets, liabilities, and interests public officials must declare. Officials are required to file a declaration annually and upon entering and leaving office.

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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future