Justice and documentation a key strategy to prevent torture
It was a great privilege to attend the recent conference, “Forensic Evidence in the Fight against Torture” in Washington, DC, co-hosted by the IRCT and the American University Washington College of Law.
The conference marked the conclusion of the IRCT’s latest European Commission-funded project on promoting the use of forensic documentation of torture, and brought together a highly distinguished collection of experts in the field from all over the world.
There were too many powerful and informative presentations and debates to list here, but one that stands out for me was the presentation from torture survivor Carlos R Mauricio. Mr. Mauricio spoke movingly of his experience, and explained that while “’therapy can help you understand why you feel so bad, what you really need is justice.” He won his legal case against the perpetrators of his torture in El Salvador.
We also heard Mostafa Hussein explain how the International Forensic Experts Group, established by the IRCT in collaboration with the University of Copenhagen, were able to provide expert testimony in the iconic Khaled Said case, which forms the central part of a film the IRCT has made about its work in the documentation of torture.
I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to directly interview many of the speakers and panelists at the event, including UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Professor Juan Mendez, himself a torture survivor who has recently described his experiences in a most thought provoking book. Professor Mendez told me that:
Documentation is essential to survivors of torture because the obligations of the state with regards to torture are manifold, but, each one of them depends on being able to document and prove that torture has happened. Unfortunately, torturers know of the difficulty in proving torture and, therefore, find ways of avoiding accountability.
The first and foremost obligation under the Convention against Torture is to investigate, prosecute and punish every single act of torture, but States get away from their obligation by saying torture is not proven. The second one, a very important one as well, is to exclude evidence obtained under torture, and the same thing happens. The person who has signed the confession comes before a magistrate or a judge and says ‘I’ve been tortured’, but, because there is no overwhelming physical evidence of torture the allegation is dismissed, and the evidence that has been coerced is admitted into court, in violation of the convention.
It is the same with remedies, reparations and rehabilitation.
Therefore, the use and understanding of thorough medico-legal documentation of torture is crucial in securing and end to impunity for torturers, the prevention of torture and redress for its victims.
It’s why, even though this particular EC-funded project is coming to a close, the IRCT will continue to develop its role as a key global hub on medico-legal documentation of torture based upon the Istanbul Protocol (PDF).
Scott heads the Communications Team at the IRCT. See @withouttorture for livetweets and photos from the event.