The infamous case of Khaled Said would have ended with the official autopsy claiming death by asphyxiation due to the swallowing of a plastic bag with narcotics. But the truth is that the 28-year old Egyptian was brutally tortured and killed at the hands of two Alexandria policemen in early 2010, and ended up influencing the history of modern Egypt. Between one scenario and the other was an alternative report by two international forensic experts exposing the weaknesses of the official medical reports. The two policemen were convicted and Khaled’s case spurred the demonstrations and uprising that ultimately led to the ousting of Hosni Mubarak.
As torture often takes place in secret and with methods designed to be as painful as possible without leaving physical marks, proving torture is becoming increasingly hard.
One of the major challenges in proving torture, and thus fighting impunity, is to obtain sufficient evidence. If there is no proof, there will be impunity. In such a climate, perpetrators can continue to torture without risking arrest, prosecution or punishment.
However, through the use of documentation, torture can be proven. Specialised health professionals can, through careful and thorough physical and psychological examination of torture victims, establish crucial medical findings and evidence that can be communicated to the judiciary and other appropriate bodies.
A key purpose of documentation is thus to make it impossible for perpetrators to deny their crimes.
The two forensic experts behind the alternative report in Khaled Said’s case are part of the Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG), a group of more than 35 eminent forensic experts from 20 countries. This group was established in 2009 by the IRCT in collaboration with the Forensic Department of the University of Copenhagen to provide support in examining torture victims in cases brought to justice systems at the international, regional or national level.
International law obliges states to properly investigate all allegations of torture and to punish those responsible. States also need to provide reparations for victims of torture, including fair and adequate compensation, restitution and rehabilitation to the fullest extent possible.
Where documentation is carried out, it puts pressure on states to fulfill their obligations under international law to fully, promptly, impartially and thoroughly investigate allegations of torture and provide reparation to victims.
However, often the required forensic expertise is not available to produce medico-legal reports of sufficient quality or the reports are not taken into account in legal proceedings due to flawed regulations or practice.
Other constraints relate to limited awareness among relevant stakeholders, especially at the national level, on the important role that medical documentation can play in establishing evidence. Intimidation and harassment of victims and professionals involved in trials against alleged perpetrators is also common. Such was the case of Dr. Germán Antonio Ramírez Herrera, an Ecuadorian forensic expert trained on the use of the Istanbul Protocol, who was killed under mysterious circumstances following the presentation of a number of cases he had documented.
For this reason, the IRCT has, for a number of years, worked to promote the value and use of medical documentation of torture according to the international standards contained in the Istanbul Protocol, the common name for The Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
The report now being published shows how, in addition to the case of Khaled Said, the forensic group has provided support to more than 70 forensic examinations in torture investigation cases since its inception four years ago. It also shows the positive results of having hundreds of lawyers, doctors and immigration officials, among others, trained to use of the Istanbul Protocol to produce high standard medico-legal documentation of torture for judicial and administrative use.
As Mostafa Hussein, from the El Nadeem Center for Psychological Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, an IRCT member based in Egypt, says, “What [survivors of torture] say is not only incredibly powerful, but is what torturers would like to never hear.”