Posts Tagged forensic science

“This is an area that binds us to others”: forensic experts in the fight against torture

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from an editorial in the newest issue of TORTURE, a multidisciplinary academic journal focusing on rehabilitation of torture victims and the prevention of torture. Find the newest edition here and all the archives.

Duarte Nuno Vieira is the former president of the International Association of Forensic Experts, Professor of Forensic Medicine and Forensic Sciences at University of Coimbra, and Head of the National Institute of Forensic Medicine of Portugal. He is a member of the IRCT’s International Forensic Expert Group.

In 1948, humanity marked an important milestone with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One of its 30 articles (Article 5) stipulates that no one shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Since then, there have been a number of other international regulations that have reinforced the legal obligation of states to prevent, prohibit, criminalize and investigate alleged cases of torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment (CIDT), as well as the obligation to ensure that all perpetrators are forced to answer for their actions and that victims receive appropriate reparation.

However, some 65 years later, there continues to be a marked discrepancy between the law and reality. Torture, illtreatment and detention in terrible conditions continue to occur all over the world, including in countries that are generally considered to be paragons of virtue in the sphere of human rights. The public scandals that erupted in 2004 as a result of the abuse and ill-treatment in the prisons of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are a case in point. Who can remain indifferent to the terrible images broadcast about the world of the atrocities perpetrated in those places?

This lamentable situation reinforces the need for a more thorough and systematic investigation of these practices in all countries. Such an investigation is essential if we are to eradicate ongoing abuses and prevent new cases and even possible deaths. Because thorough investigation is necessary to ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice, that victims receive proper reparation (compensation, rehabilitation and other forms of redress to which they are entitled), and that official bodies and the general public are made aware of such practices in order to prohibit them completely and encourage reform.

The investigation of torture and CIDT or punishment is not, however, an easy task. Such practices usually occur behind closed doors where there are no witnesses and are systematically denied by states and authorities. The methods used are becoming increasingly sophisticated, designed to leave no physical marks. Victims are kept in isolation, without access to lawyers, doctors or family members (at least while the physical signs of ill-treatment remain visible). Fear of reprisals against themselves or their families often leads them to deny or hide this reality. Even to assess detention conditions (that often amount to a form of CIDT or punishment) may be a complex matter, given the restricted access to them.

However, today we have valuable guidelines about how to proceed in the investigation and documentation of such situations. The Istanbul Protocol in one of the examples, obtaining growing international recognition day by day for the important role that it can play in this process. There has been increased investment in the training of professionals able to investigate and document torture and other forms of CIDT or punishment. There have been more (and better) studies of this phenomenon published in scientific journals. National and international scientific associations are now giving more attention to the question.

Thus, the panorama with regard to the investigation and documentation of such cases has changed radically in recent decades, with considerable advances made. And there have been many valuable initiatives promoted by diverse organizations: for example, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture (IRCT) has, in recent years, promoted an important project for the use of Forensic Evidence Against Torture (FEAT), and this project has clearly played an important role in providing forensic opinions, leading to the formation of the International Forensic Expert Group (IFEG), currently involving 33 forensic health experts from 18 countries.

This has indeed been a remarkable achievement. Today, no one questions then role of the forensic medical expert, who has specific training in this domain, to assess possible injuries and signs of abuse, even in the absence of specific denunciations or accusations; to document the signs (physical and psychological) of a possible physical or psychological abuse; to interpret the proofs obtained and deduce their possible causes; to pronounce upon the extent to which medical proofs correlate with specific allegations made by the victim; to make effective use of the information obtained in order to document and publicise such practices and ensure that the legal and government authorities, at local, national and international level, are fully informed of the physical and psychological consequences of the type (or types) of torture used.

However, the mission of medical experts in the sphere of torture is far from easy. It often involves contact with people who carry within themselves the traumas of a life branded with misfortune and misery. All of us that work in this domain have heard the voices of the victims and their families, their mute cries of desperation and anguish, pain and rage. But we try every day to help them, to not give up on this world. And I am sure that everyone that works in this area has, during the course of their professional life, come into contact with situations that provide us with great spiritual nourishment. This is an area that binds us to others, and which involves seeking answers to some of the large (and small) questions of life. And it also involves adding to the real, reinventing the world that we have inherited.

Read the full editorial here

By Duarte Nuno Vieira

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Forensic expert wins first International Medical Peace Prize

We are really thrilled to congratulation Prof. Dr. Sebnem Korur Fincanci on winning the first International Medical Peace Prize.

Dr. Sebnem Korur Fincanci (centre), of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, poses with the selecting jury of the International Medical Peace Award. Photo by Samantha Staudte/IPPNW, available via Flickr through Creative Commons license.

She was chosen for her courageous opposition to human rights abuses and torture and commitment to justice and medicine.

Dr. Fincanci heads the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, an IRCT member centre, and was instrumental in the creation of the UN-endorsed Istanbul Protocol, the international standard for investigating and documenting claims of torture. In addition, she was among the seven authors of Atlas of Torture, a medical atlas of documenting torture, in conjunction with IRCT’s Senior Forensic Advisor Dr. Önder Özkalipci. Dr. Fincanci also sits on the IRCT Council, our governing body.

Read our full statement here.

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Khaled Said’s killers sentenced for manslaughter; we echo disappointment of his family on this charge

The judge in the Khaled Said case sentenced the two policemen to seven years in prison for manslaughter. We have a statement expressing our dismay at the ruling of manslaughter over murder charges, echoing statements from the family of Said that this is an affront to the right to justice  of victims of torture:

The sentencing of police officers for manslaughter, rather than murder, in the case of Khaled Said is a mockery of the victims of torture and their right to justice. The IRCT echoes the disappointment of the Said family and Egyptian human rights defenders in saying that this verdict does not reflect the crime of torture and murder.

In an Alexandria court yesterday, the judge sentenced the two policemen to seven years for manslaughter, immediately sparking outcries from the families and activists in the court.

“Justice has not been done to Khaled Said, and we will not budge,” Said’s uncle Ali Qasse told Reuters news agency.

Read our full statement here, which includes information on the forensic report we coordinated on the case.

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Torture and human rights highlighted at international forensic science meeting

Dr. Maria Dolores Morccillo Mendez won the IRCT's award for best presentation or poster on a human rights or torture related issue with her presentation entitled Desmembramiento como Causa de Meurte” (“Dismemberment as Cause of Death”). She pictured here with IRCT's Senior Forensic Advisor Dr. Önder Özkalipci.

As we state in our welcome and more about us, part of the goal of this blog is to highlight the work on the ground – what we actually do in the IRCT Secretariat and the work that our member centres do in the global struggle against torture.

And some of it gets really technical.

A major theme of our work for the last several years has been supporting, through various means, the forensic documentation of torture. Through several international partners and especially the University of Copenhagen, we have tried to bring together forensic physicians and experts with human rights groups and organisations.

And, from our recent attendance at the International Association of Forensic Sciences tri-annual conference, we have seen the results of a warm welcome for human rights and torture issues into the field of forensic sciences.

“I think that, human rights and torture issues have increased massively in visibility in this kind of big international meeting in the forensic medicine area,” said Dr. Önder Özkalipci, IRCT Senior Forensic Advisor after his return from the conference in Madeira, Portugal.

At the conference, the IRCT had the pleasure of awarding Dr. Maria Dolores Morccillo Mendez, a forensic medical doctor from the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences in Colombia, an award for the best presentation or poster on a human rights or torture related issue. Dr. Morcillo Mendez’s presentation, entitled “Desmembramiento como Causa de Meurte” (“Dismemberment as Cause of Death”) was of “excellent scientific quality as well as of utmost importance for the discourse of torture prevention and rehabilitation,” said Dr. Joost den Otter, one of seven members of the award committee and Clinical Director at the IRCT.

Prior to the week-long conference, the IRCT also hosted a seminar for presentations on forensic investigations that used the Istanbul Protocol, the UN-endorsed international standard for investigating and documenting claims of torture.

Furthermore, at a scientific session chaired by Dr. Manfred Nowak, IRCT Patron and former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Dr. Özkalipci, Dr. den Otter, Dr. Walter Wekesa Nalyanya, MD, of Moi University in Kenya, and Dr. Steen Holger Hansen, MD, of the University of Copenhagen discussed the documentation of torture through forensic evidence.

And even more encouraging, there were several organisations at the conference – attended by approximately 1,600 forensic physicians, scientists, and practitioners – that focused on human rights and torture issues, said Dr. Özkalipci.

“I have been so impressed and pleased that the forensic world has truly welcomed the inclusion of human rights and torture investigations in their programmes and meetings,” he said. “Ten years ago this was not the case. And it indeed makes me optimistic for the future.”

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