Archive for August, 2012

Impunity continues in US

US Attorney General Eric Holder announced Thursday that the Justice Department has decided not to pursue criminal charges following their investigation of the CIA torture programme. Photo by USDAgov, available at Flickr through Creative Commons License.

US Justice Department closes investigation of CIA torture programme with no criminal charges

No one has been charged for any crimes committed during the Bush Administration’s CIA torture programme. US Department of Justice Attorney General Eric Holder announced yesterday that the department had concluded its investigation and found that, “the admissible evidence would not be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.”

So, yet again, crimes that took place during the Bush era will be pushed aside. Whatever the reasons given for this decision, the reality remains that crimes occurred – torture, rendition, abuse of detainees – in clear violation of well-established international law [PDF]. The ongoing impunity for these abuses and the lack of justice for the victims shows that the U.S. continues to flout the rule of law.

The investigation, broadly speaking, focused on three main areas: detainees allegedly held by the CIA abroad, the destruction of CIA videotaped interrogations, and two deaths in detention. The latter two portions of the investigation had previously been dropped, and the final announcement yesterday pertained only to the deaths of Gul Rahman and Manadel al-Jamadi.

Rahman, a suspected Afghan militant, was taken to a CIA-operated prison near Kabul, called the Salt Pit. Left inside a cold cell and half-naked, Rahman was found dead in the early morning of 20 November 2002. According to the Associated Press, a CIA doctor ruled the cause of his death as hypothermia. His body was never returned to his relatives.

Manadel al-Jamadi was among those detained and interrogated at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. He died within five hours of his arrest, and military investigators ruled his death a homicide caused by, “blunt force trauma to the torso complicated by compromised respiration.”

The families of neither of these men will see justice any time soon. No one has been found guilty; no was has had to face criminal charges for their deaths. Impunity continues to reign in the U.S.


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An opportunity to address torture in South Africa?

The nearly 20-year-old democracy has yet to make torture a criminal offense

Almost 200 affidavits have been taken from arrested miners alleging they were tortured by police in detention facilities in Rustenberg, the nearest large town to the mines at the centre of recent unrest in South Africa. Yet it is a sad truth that these 200 alleged cases of torture do not represent an anomaly in modern South Africa.

The most recent report [PDF] from the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), the department tasked with the oversight over and investigations of South African police authorities, describes 797 new complaints received regarding deaths in custody over the most recent year. This is in addition to 2,493 complaints of criminal offense and 2,493 misconduct cases against the police services, including both the national South African Police Service (SAPS)  and the Municipal Police Services (MPS).

These are the only readily available statistics that give some indication on the incidence of torture in South Africa — which is very often, according to Professor Peter Jordi of the Wits Law School. The reason better statistics have not been accumulated is that torture is not criminalised in South Africa’s domestic law. It is “difficult to work out the prevalence [of torture] because it is not a crime on its own,” Monica Bandeira, of the the Johannesburg-based Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) and IRCT member, told Times Live. Rather, she said, torture cases are often defined as assault or causing grievous bodily harm.

A key problem in this re-defining of torture is that these charges do not take into account the particularly egregious nature of torture and the rights its victims have, such as full rehabilitation and compensation. However, the UN Convention Against Torture (UNCAT), which both defines torture and describes the state’s obligations in regards to allegations of torture, dictates that states shall criminalise torture in their domestic law; yet while South Africa ratified UNCAT in 1998, it has yet to make torture a criminal offense.

However, just next month the Prevention and Combating of Torture of Persons Bill [PDF], which will put the UN provisions into South African law, will come before Parliament. There have been both praises and criticisms of the bill — praise that it echoes the UNCAT in defining the perpetrators of torture as any official acting in their capacity as a state agent, which shall include teachers and state elderly care home workers; criticism that the bill also does not direct a specific agency to receive and investigate complaints of torture. Others point out that, as a result of the bill, a massive public education plan needs to be implemented to ensure people understand their rights.

Despite its shortcomings, which have been laid bare for all to see thanks to South Africa’s robust community of civil society actors, the bill should pass to ensure that, at a base minimum, torture becomes a criminal offense. Yet the implementation of the bill needs to take all valid criticisms into consideration — an independent investigative agency would need to be established and public education campaigns would be needed to ensure that people understand their rights if they ever come into contact with state authorities that abuse or torture.

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Use of evidence obtained through torture perpetuates the problem

Canada’s national police directives clearly violate international law, which dictates that countries must not use information or evidence obtained through torture

Canada’s Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.

We have said it before; and we shall say it again.

Countries must not use evidence or information obtained through torture. In any circumstances. Doing so is a clear violation of international law, especially those countries who have signed onto the obligations within the UN Convention Against Torture. The Convention, which Canada ratified in 1985, states:

Article 15

Each State Party shall ensure that any statement which is established to have been made as a result of torture shall not be invoked as evidence in any proceedings, except against a person accused of torture as evidence that the statement was made.

Yet, Canada’s Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has issued directives to both the Canadian Border Services Agency and the national police, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), saying that they have the authority to use and share data and evidence that was likely obtained through torture.

Toews apparently has a short memory. Just six years ago, a federal commission recommended that Canada never share information with other countries if it is likely that it will cause or contribute to torture. This recommendation followed an investigation into the case of Canadian engineer Maher Arar, who was detained in the U.S. after RCMP provided faulty information to the US authorities. Arar was rendered to his native Syria, where he was tortured and detained for about a year.

Arar’s case was among those mentioned in the hefty criticisms leveled against the Canadian government during this year’s review by the UN Committee against Torture. The Committee condemned Canadian ‘complicity’ in torture.

Canada joins others such as Denmark in the shameful club of countries that justify their use of information obtained through torture by clinging to the long-dismissed arguments of ‘ticking-time bombs’ and public safety.

So, let’s again make this clear. The ticking-time bomb scenario doesn’t happen [PDF]. It’s clearly been proven false. Torture does not work [PDF].

And using information obtained through torture simply allows it to continue unabated.

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The daunting job of Brazil’s truth commission

Dilma Rousseff

Dilma Rousseff speaks at the inauguration of the National Truth Commission in Brazil. Photo by Agência Brasil

Early this year the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture stated in its review of Brazil that “impunity for acts of torture was pervasive” in the country.

However, following the recent conviction of a colonel for crimes of torture, a new wave of optimism and hope is sweeping the country. Paulo Vannuchi, the former minister who pushed for the establishment of the truth commission in Brazil, is spearheading the wave. He stated, “the impunity has been broken.”

And that wave is not small. The Brazilian truth commission, which began in May and has a two-year mandate, has already received hundreds of recommendations from civil society organisations around the country. These organisations are calling for the government to not only list but prosecute those responsible for the alleged crimes of torture committed during the dictatorship despite a 1979 amnesty that shelters military officials from prosecution.

Open the archives, don’t create new ones

Grupo Tortura Nunca Mais (GTNM), an IRCT member organisation based in Rio de Janeiro, has for many years been at the forefront of calls for the establishment of a truth commission in Brazil. However, the organisation, which has recently been threatened and seen its office targeted by burglars, is not being swept up in the wave of optimism about recent developments.

A little over a month after the commission’s work began, GTNM issued a statement which read: “the national truth commission has been showing their real objectives, and their perverse limitations”.

According to GTNM, the core of the matter is that the dictatorship archives have been kept hidden for years, and instead of making them public, the truth commission is creating new ones, in a measure thought to persuade the perpetrators to reveal details about the crimes of the military regime. GTNM asks whether the commission isn’t just helping to “cover the crimes and its perpetrators?”

Ultimately, the amnesty law remains untouched, and the truth commission won’t have the power to act against those involved in the crimes. Furthermore, the commission is not obliged to release its findings and an eventual list of torturers might be shared with the defence minister and the president only. To further curb the optimist, the small team of seven men and women has only two years to heal the wounds of more than 40 years and turn the page.

The dictatorship in Brazil killed an estimated 400 people; torture victims are estimated to number in the thousands, including, most notably, the nation’s president Dilma Rousseff.

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Joost Martens appointed Secretary-General of the IRCT

ImageJoost Martens recently took up his post as the new Secretary-General of the IRCT. Here, he describes why he took the role on and what he sees as the challenges of the future.

I feel privileged and honoured to have been appointed to the position of Secretary-General for the IRCT. I look forward to helping to shape the development of this dynamic movement over the years ahead, building on strong foundations laid in the past.

While being from Holland and an economist by training, I have in fact lived and worked most of my professional life outside of my country, engaged in the areas of development, humanitarian work and consumer protection. My wish to contribute to the struggle against poverty and injustice has led me to work in many different countries, from Zambia to Chile and Nicaragua, from Mexico to Vietnam and El Salvador for a range of organizations, like ILO, UNHCR, Oxfam and Consumers International. The common thread in these assignments of working for justice and equity has been the issue of rights; be it labour rights and standards, rights of refugees and migrants, the rights-based approach to development or the fulfillment of consumer rights. Over the years I evolved from the economist I was “meant” to be, taking on increasing responsibilities as a general manager and leader of people.

Thus I see my leadership of the IRCT Secretariat in Copenhagen as the logical next step. On the one hand, because the organisation is focused on the issue of justice and rights: the right to health, the right to rehabilitation, the right to a world free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. On the other hand, because the IRCT is working on this as a truly global movement, with strength and legitimacy based on the work of its member organisations from all over the world.

From my predecessor, I am taking over the leadership of an organisation with a sound international reputation, a solid democratic structure and a stable funding base. My challenges are to build on this; to increase the breadth and depth of the work of the IRCT; to further increase and diversify the income of the organisation ; and, above all to support and strengthen the members, both individually and in their regional groupings.

The IRCT exists because of its members. The global membership provides the legitimacy to the Secretariat, as representative of a worldwide movement, to advocate and campaign for the right to rehabilitation, to fight impunity and to influence international policy in regards of prevention.

Of course, at the level of the member organisations the IRCT best reaches its ultimate beneficiaries, torture survivors and those at risk of torture. Everything that the movement does should be geared – directly or indirectly – towards this.

And the effectiveness of our work – the results of rehabilitation – aren’t something we should keep quiet about. We must remind the world not only that rehabilitation is a right, but, that it is effective. That it is not only effective at the individual level, but, it helps families and communities, and is an essential building block for whole societies coming out of a post-conflict situation.

Our work is essential to the functioning of stable, transparent, accountable, and democratic societies.

I am looking forward to working together with their representatives in the IRCT’s governance bodies to contribute to the impact and effectiveness of IRCT as a membership organisation, and to strengthen the individual members and IRCT as a global movement. I am looking forward to helping bring about the IRCTs vision: a world without torture.

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High hopes for new ICC prosecutor

The International Criminal Court has a new chief prosecutor.

(Update below – Update 1)

Fatou Bensounda, of The Gambia, was sworn in as Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court 17 June 2012. Photo by Prachatai; available via Flickr through Creative Commons License.

Sworn in just this summer, Fatou Bensouda will take the lead in the fight against the worst violators of human rights abuses around the world. The Gambian former judge is the first woman and first African to head the team of prosecutors, and only the second chief prosecutor the court has ever had. She follows Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the Argentine human rights lawyer who led the group for nearly a decade.

In the years since the court’s opening, proceedings against  individuals in seven “situations” are ongoing for charges including genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Much of the courts work has been applauded in the last decade, especially considering that the Court was the first of its kind – a permanent court for international justice in which countries signed on through the Rome Statute. Just this year the court found Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, the first trial defendant, guilty for conscripting and using children as soldiers in aggression in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Many called this a “major step in the global fight against impunity” [PDF].

However, some individuals and women’s rights organisations [PDF] have expressed disappointment that the court, in the most recent case, did not pursue charges directly related to sexual violence and rape.

Bensounda has been overwhelmingly and enthusiastically welcomed by those who know her skilled work as a deputy prosecutor to the ICC for the last eight years, and previous experience investigating atrocities during the Rwandan genocide as a legal advisor for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.  She has previously spoken out very clearly on the need to pursue cases involving rape and sexual violence against women in armed conflict; as deputy investigator, she said:

The cases that are before the ICC today are helping to focus on the use of gender crimes and sexual violence as a weapon of war. That is what we are doing. In all our cases that we are investigating today, we have tried to bring focus to this particular serious crime of using violence, rape, sex, violence against women during the time of conflict as a weapon.

And in her interviews and public statements, Bensounda has almost never failed to mention the victims of the war crimes and atrocities that her work is driven by. In fact, Bensounda was a presenter at a symposium on “Providing Reparation and Treatment, Preventing Impunity” at the IRCT’s International Symposium on Torture in 2006. There, she spoke about the experiences and challenges of prosecuting international crimes, such as protecting witnesses in situations of ongoing armed conflict. [PDF of Symposium Abstracts]

And on 7 August, the Court released its first decision on reparations for victims, thus allowing for the victims of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo to apply for reparations for the crimes. Brigid Inder, Executive Director of Executive Director of the Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice, a human rights organisation focused on ensuring justice for women through the ICC, has said [PDF]:

This decision recognises that reparations is a key feature of the Rome Statute and therefore of the mandate of the ICC. Reparations is possibly the most tangible representation of the justice process for victims, especially for those who have had little access to or information about the formal legal proceedings.

We at the IRCT, along with many members of civil society, welcome the new leadership of Fatou Bensounda.

Update 1: Yesterday, Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice, a coalition of civil society0, legal experts on international justice, and lawyers that focus on gender-based violence cases within the International Criminal Court, has announced [PDF] that their executive director Brigid Inder has been appointed by Fatou Bensounda to be a special gender advisor to the prosecutor.

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News roundup

News roundup for the week includes: stories on solitary confinement in the US; Palestinian children in Israel detention; new Supreme Court decision in Mexico may stomp out impunity; Argentina’s torture problem. 

Human Rights Watch estimates that, on any given day, there are 80,000 US prisoners in solitary confinement; many who have been subjected to this form of torture for years, even decades in some cases. Photo by x1klima on Flickr; available through Creative Commons License.

United States:
An editorial at Al Jazeera notes
that media and perhaps legislative consensus is growing around the issue of long-term solitary confinement as torture. UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez has previously stated that solitary confinement longer than 15 days can constitute torture. Some prisoners in the US detention system have been in some form or another of solitary confinement for as long as 40 years. The editorial also indicates that this form of punishment and cruel treatment may be more often applied to black prisoners, such as the infamous Angola 3.

Occupied Palestinian Territory:
Defence for Children International, an international children’s rights NGO, has released a staggering report on abuse of Palestinian children in Israeli detention. “The first 48 hours after a child is taken are the most important because that’s when the most abuse happens,” DCI’s lawyer Gerard Horten told Al Jazeera in an interview, echoing the findings of an upcoming IRCT report on children and torture in the Philippines, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Most children are detained for allegations involving throwing stones at Israeli troops. Some are as young as 12, and can be detained for months without access to a lawyer or their parents. A majority of those detained faced verbal threats or harassment, physical abuse, interrogation by officials, and were blindfolded and restrained. Read the full report here [PDF].

Human rights group in Mexico have celebrated a recent Supreme Court ruling that military human rights violations may be turned over to civilian, rather than military, courts. “The Supreme Court ruled Thursday to send the case of Jethro Ramses Sanchez, a 27-year-old auto mechanic who authorities say was tortured and killed by soldiers at a military base last year, to civilian court,” reports The Washington Post. Human rights groups say this ruling may be a blow to the consistent impunity for military human rights violations in Mexico.

torture cases in Argentina have been widely reported in the media recently. And just this week, a report emerged that there have been as many as 7,000 human rights violations in Argentine prisons. Some point to the lack of reform in the prison system since the military junta that ended in the 1980s and that was marked by several thousand extra-judicial killings and torture, the so-called ‘dirty war’. Read about a visit to many of the sites of the ‘dirty war’ by IRCT’s Brita Sydhoff here.

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A lacking debate

With a Republican VP running-mate finally named, the countdown to the U.S. election begins. But with only 85 days remaining, there is a glaring lack of debate on human rights and torture in America.

Pvt 1st Class Bradley Manning has been accused of provided the largest leak of state secrets in US history. The government’s treatment of Manning, particularly during eight months of detention at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, has been called torture by the UN’s chief torture investigator.

In the United States and beyond, newspapers are being filled with the ongoing policy discussions related to the U.S. presidential election. With less than three months to go, however, next to nothing has been said about America’s ongoing problem with torture.

Just this weekend, candidate Mitt Romney announced his choice for a vice-presidential running mate; it’s Paul Ryan, a Republican representative from Wisconsin and a “fiscal policy wonk”, as he’s most consistently described. It’s a pretty clear signal — this election is about the economy and the diverging ideologies of how to remove the U.S. from the ongoing recession.

And lost within these debates on domestic and economic policy is any discussion on torture, or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in the U.S.; the 80,000 prisoners detained in long-term solitary confinement, the rendition and torture programme of the Bush years, or the particular case of Bradley Manning.

Manning, 24, who is accused of supplying the largest leak of state secrets in U.S. history to Wikileaks, was detained for more than eight months in conditions his lawyers describe as a “flagrant violation” of his rights, in a motion published this Friday.

According to the motion, Manning was subject to “cruel and unusual” treatment in military detention. He was forced to remain awake every day from 5:00 to 22:00, during which he could not lay down or lean against a wall or other support – “he had to sit upright on his rack without any back support”, his lawyer writes. Manning was also only permitted 20 minutes outdoors a day; any time outside of his cell he was forced to wear leg and arm restraints.

Following a 14-month investigation, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez described the treatment of Manning as torture.

These are also issues that also need to be addressed and raised during the next 85 days. When the media has gone so far as to debate a candidate’s treatment of his pet during the 1980s, and not yet raise the issue of torture, it’s a depressing sign of America’s depleted authority on human rights.

Let’s finally have this proper debate on torture in the U.S. So let these candidates know that we want them to tell us about their views – on long-term solitary confinement, on cruel treatment of Bradley Manning, and on impunity of those involved in the US rendition and torture programme. Ask them on Facebook, Twitter and townhall meetings.

Tessa, a US citizen living in Denmark, is Communications Officer at the IRCT.

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Brazil’s torture exam (Part 2)

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part look at Brazil’s recent review by the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture.

The United Nations examination of Brazil’s detention system is over, and in the spirit of transparency, Brazil has released the report produced by the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT).

The SPT first examined the country’s legal and institutional frameworks, healthcare system, impunity, corruption, and reprisals. It then inspected Brazil’s detention system and the conditions of penitentiary institutions.

Throughout its inspection, the SPT observed situations of overcrowding. “In almost all facilities visited the number of inmates exceeded the facility’s maximum capacity.” Extreme overcrowding was also reported in vehicles during the transportation of detainees.

With the exception of a few positive cases, persons detained in police facilities are often held in “dilapidated, filthy and stuffy cells, with inadequate or no sanitation, and inadequate or no bedding provided. In the case of prolonged police detention, there are consistent allegations of deprivation of food and  water, as well as the lack of access to fresh air and exercise.”

The military and civil police were reported to threaten, kick and punch. Such beatings “take place in police custody, but also on the street, inside private homes, or in secluded outdoor areas, at the moment of arrest. The torture and ill-treatment was described to the SPT as gratuitous violence, as a form of punishment, to extract confessions, and as a means of extortion.”

Children reported similar beatings and a female prisoner reported that she had been raped by two police officers while in police custody.

As for treatment in police custody, one inmate stated to the SPT that the methods of torture used during his interrogation included suffocation by placing his head in a plastic bag, electric shocks and psychological threats.

“…one detainee stated that while in the custody of the civil police for a period of two days he was held in a dirty cell of approximately 8 m² holding 20 men, and deprived of food and water. When the detainees complained and requested food and water, they were beaten.”

According to the Subcommittee, this is not the first time these recommendations have been made to Brazil. Even though progress is clear in several areas, many of the problems encountered by the SPT are similar to the ones found in past visits.

Are things going to change?

Brazil will soon respond to the SPT report – it is expected to be submitted by the Brazilian government by 8th August.

According to Ana Paula Moreira, general-coordinator for the fight against torture at the department of human rights, several Brazilian ministries have been coordinating action on this front. A particular focus is the national support program to the prison system, which aims at ending some of the problems pointed out by the SPT, namely that of prison overcrowding. For this goal, Brazil will invest approx. 440 million Euros.

There are grounds to believe Brazil will pursue the recommendations in the report. The publication of the report itself is a key step and demonstrates Brazil’s commitment against torture and willingness to engage in dialogue with the SPT.

Fabio is a Communications Officer and Assistant Editor of Torture Journal at IRCT.

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