Archive for category Forensics – Project Work

On a mission to document torture

Across the globe there are many human rights defenders and organisations whose work has made an enormous difference to the fight against torture – yet we know very little about them and what they do. One such group is the Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG), which consists of 35 of the world’s most eminent experts in the documentation and investigation of torture. Coming from 18 different countries, these experts have varied backgrounds ranging from forensic pathologists to clinical psychologists.

The objective of the IFEG is to use its members’ expertise as doctors, psychologist and psychiatrists to document and investigate torture and to secure justice for victims. As part of their work they go on documentation missions around the world, conducting physical and psychological evaluations of alleged torture victims. They also train health and legal professionals in how to document torture and help raise awareness among the public.

Dastan Salehi from the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) recently spent a week with IFEG members Dr Maximo Alberto Duque Piedrahita and Dr Ana Deutsch on a mission in the Bolivian capital of La Paz. We asked Dastan to document the mission and as his pictures show, the work of the IFEG can take many different forms.


Dr Duque (left) and Dr Deutsch (right) spent one week in La Paz, Bolivia on a documentation mission, conducting physical and psychological evaluation on three people who allege they were subjected to torture in Bolivia. 


Documentation missions are the bread and butter of the IFEG’s work. In a nutshell, they feature two IFEG experts (one medical doctor and one psychologist or psychiatrist) who travel to a particular country to conduct examinations on people who allege they have been tortured. This examination results in what is known as a ‘medico-legal report’, which seeks to medically and psychologically assess the correlation of the physical and psychological scars with the allegations of torture.


While in La Paz, the two experts delivered a workshop on the Istanbul Protocol, the key international instrument on the investigation and documentation of torture and ill-treatment. The workshop, which was hosted by local rehabilitation centre Instituto de Terapia y Investigacion (ITEI), looked at ways to improve effective documentation of torture and the obligations of health professionals to document and report cases of torture independently.



During the mission, the IFEG experts spent time with ITEI to share experiences and best practices and to discuss how they can best work together in the future to document torture. 



The IFEG’s visit caught the attention of several local media outlets, which were all keen to interview them. In this one, Dr Duque appears alongside Andres Gautier, Lead Psychologist at ITEI, on the television programme Claroscuro con Angel Careaga to discuss the situation of torture in Bolivia and Latin America. 


Dr Duque also met with journalists from Agencia de Noticias Fides Bolivia and was interviewed on Radio PanAmericana Bolivia to share his views on the situation in Bolivia, as well as to discuss the importance of the Istanbul Protocol. 

Going on mission with the IFEG experts, Dastan Salehi quickly realised just how important their work is to the anti-torture movement and torture victims around the world.

“It was really inspiring to see Ana and Maximo at work. The way they spoke to and interacted with the victims and their families was just phenomenal. They didn’t treat them as just a case. They built rapport, shared and collaborated with them as people, and that was quite special.”

Each IFEG mission leaves behind a legacy of learning and inspiration, despite the difficult nature of the expert’s work; this was no different in La Paz.

A big thank you to Dastan for sharing his pictures with us. To find out more about the work of the IFEG click here.


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Using forensic evidence against torture: case of Ali Aarrass

Editor’s Note: A French version of this blog is available for download here (Une version française de ce blog est disponible en téléchargement ici) [DOC]

Ali Aarrass is a Belgian-Moroccan citizen currently held in a Moroccan prison, where he is regularly subjected to various forms of inhuman and degrading treatment.

His ordeal began in 2006 when he was arrested for the first time in Spain for smuggling weapons into Morocco. Released on bail, he was arrested for the second time in April 2008 by Spanish authorities, following an international arrest warrant issued by Morocco.

That time, he was accused of being involved in terrorist activities. This accusation was based on a list of suspects provided by Abdelkader Belliraj after being subject to torture. However, after a two-year investigation, the Spanish court found no evidence proving that Ali was guilty. Yet, Moroccan authorities still insisted on his extradition.

In a preliminary decision of the UN Human Rights Committee issued in late 2010,  the Committee requested that Spain not extradite Ali before any further consideration was taken on his case because of the high risk that he would be facing torture in Morocco.

Despite a formal recognition of his innocence by the Spanish justice system and a high risk of being subjected to torture if extradited to Morocco, Spain proceeded with his extradition on 14 December 2010.

The feared violation of Ali’s fundamental rights unfortunately immediately occurred. Ali was secretly detained and interrogated under torture by Moroccan police. Therefore, he was not only a victim of torture, but also a victim of a serious violation of his procedural rights.

The use of forced confessions obtained under torture was the only legal basis for his conviction of being involved in terrorist activities.

Ali reported being subjected to torture during his detention by Moroccan police and referred his case to the UN Committee against Torture. Thereafter, the Moroccan authorities ordered a medical examination, which was conducted by three Moroccan doctors. While their assessment did not confirm the allegations of torture, it strongly questioned the credibility of the original medical. Indeed, the medical report does not seem to rely on any standard derived from international law, such as the Istanbul Protocol, the common name for the Manual on Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, an internationally recognised standard for conducting a forensic medical and psychological examination in a torture case.

Facing this situation, Ali’s lawyers — members of a Belgian human rights organisation “Jus Cogens” – called for the IRCT’s support in early 2011, in the context of the project “Forensic Evidence Against Torture” (FEAT).

This liaison between lawyers and an independent medical expert, established by the IRCT, has enabled a thorough and substantial criticism of the three-page Moroccan expertise within a very short time frame. Thus, lawyers have been able to use this “counter-report” before national and international courts.

The forensic expert was selected among the members of the Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG) established by the IRCT in 2008. This group is composed of highly-qualified health professionals trained on the medical procedures contained in the Istanbul Protocol.

The forensic expert concluded that the report ordered by the Moroccan Attorney General did not meet the requirements of the Istanbul Protocol. Indeed, he notes that the report only contains very basic information on Ali’s medical state, without bringing any kind of psychological and psychiatric assessment to the analysis.

The expert therefore recommended that a new medical and psychological examination should be conducted in accordance with the Istanbul Protocol and by a doctor experienced in the field of health expertise on victims of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment.

In order to give more weight and credibility to the counter-report issued by the IFEG expert, a second counter-report was carried out by a Moroccan doctor, also member of the IFEG. He confirmed the conclusion of the first international expert stating that the report conducted under the Attorney General’s orders was not in conformity with the Istanbul Protocol.

Yet the submission of forensic expert reports and statements in compliance with the Istanbul Protocol is sometimes simply not enough. It is up to the courts to recognise them as evidence.

The case of Ali Aarrass is an obvious example. Despite the production of two independent expert statements by international independent health professionals, the Moroccan courts effectively ignored allegations of torture at all stages of the trial.

Seeing the bad faith with which Moroccan authorities have been handling the case, Ali’s lawyers are quite pessimistic about the future of the case. Indeed, they are not expecting the justice system to leave the possibility of national authorities recognising the torture suffered during Ali’s first interrogations in Morocco. It is likely that Ali will serve the 12-year sentence, as decided by the appeal court.

Morocco does not seem to respect its international legal obligations, particularly with regard to the Convention against Torture, which the country ratified in 1993. The obligations to investigate and to provide as full means as possible for the rehabilitation of victims are not optional.

Ali Aarrass continues to suffer daily abuse, and inhuman and degrading treatment inside his prison. However, despite the continued threats and actual abuse, he never hesitates to speak out on his situation.

Many organisations, lawyers, family members who support him, and Ali himself, can still hope that the international bodies will eventually recognise the violation of Ali’s fundamental rights and offer him an opportunity for full rehabilitation.

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IRCT launches new report: Preventing torture through forensic medical documentation

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.

FEAT-shadeThe 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.”


> Download the full report (PDF)

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Turkey continues arrests, detentions and convictions of human rights defenders

Looking at the front page at the website of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, two news items on the top feature the same word – Turkey.

Pınar Selek, a sociologist and writer, was convicted on specious charges in Turkey after three previous acquittals.

Pınar Selek, a sociologist and writer, was convicted on specious charges in Turkey after three previous acquittals.

On Friday of last week, a Turkish court convicted Pınar Selek, a sociologist and writer, on charges arising from an explosion at a market in Istanbul in 1998. Yes, 1998. Fifteen years ago, Turkish authorities arrested the researcher, who was conducting ongoing interviews with the Kurdish minority, tortured her to find out the names of those she had interviewed, and charged her for the explosion at the market. For 15 years, authorities have been trying to convict Selek. During that time she has been acquitted three times, but the judicial harassment continued.

Selek’s work focused on the Kurdish minority and women. And after the explosion, prosecutors claimed that Selek had something to do with a terrorist organisation that planted a bomb. But experts even disagreed if there was a bomb in the first place – many experts said it was instead a gas leak that caused the explosion. Witnesses for the prosecution withdrew testimony as well, claiming that it had been coerced under torture. The through the IRCT project on forensic evidence, experts corroborated that Selek had in fact been tortured in detention.

Today, Selek remains in Strasbourg, France, but a visit to her home country could result in an arrest and life imprisonment. The IRCT is calling for the charges to be dismissed and the harassment to end.

But use of Turkey’s extremely broad and easily abused anti-terrorism legislation, these arrests are not uncommon. Just earlier this month, police arrested 15 lawyers, all of whom belong to Progressive Lawyers Association (Cagdas Hukukçular Dernegi – ÇHD) – an extremely important non-profit organisation that provides legal assistance for victims of human rights violations, including torture.

Engin Çeber, a human rights activist, was arrested and tortured, cause his death in 2008. The lawyers pursuing the case were arrested in January this year.

Engin Çeber, a human rights activist, was arrested and tortured, cause his death in 2008. The lawyers pursuing the case were arrested in January this year.

One such case of theirs was on behalf of Engin Çeber, a human rights activist that was also arrested and tortured in detention in 2008. He died from his injuries. Only after independent forensic evidence confirmed that he had been tortured did Turkish authorities investigate the case. Three prison officials were sentenced to life; nine others were convicted and given prison terms ranging from 5 months to 12 1/2 years.

These two cases point to a long-term continuous abuse of the anti-terrorism legislation to target human rights defenders and critics of the Turkish state. In just October of law year, the UN Human Rights Committee criticized Turkey on this issue, writing in their final report that:

The Committee is concerned that several provisions of the 1991 Anti-Terrorism Law (Law 3713) are incompatible with the Covenant rights. The Committee is particularly concerned at: (a) the vagueness of the definition of a terrorist act; (b) the far-reaching restrictions imposed on the right to due process; (c) the high number of cases in which human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists and even children are charged under the Anti-Terrorism Law for the free expression of their opinions and ideas, in particular in the context of non-violent discussions of the Kurdish issue. (arts. 2, 14 and 19) [DOC]

The IRCT and our partners are concerned for the safety of the lawyers that remain in custody. But further to that, what does this mean for human rights defenders in Turkey and their continuous fight against torture and other human rights violations?

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Video corroborates claims that Danish troops knew of likelihood of torture

Danish troops did in fact witness abuse of civilian detainees at the hands of Iraqi troops during the conflict.

This has been verified by a video tape released yesterday in Danish media, provided by a former military intelligence officer, which shows Danish troops witnessing and commenting on a beating by Iraqi soldiers.

These new facts directly contradict the testimony of Lt. Col. John Dalby, commanding officer of Operation Green Desert in Iraq, who claimed at the end of 2011 that Danish troops had not witnessed abuse. While a military officer claims Dalby himself had seen the video tape, which was recording by troops under his command, Dalby today has denied this, claiming he first saw the video on TV2 News this morning.

But the question we ask ourselves is, what does this mean for the victims of torture and abuse in Iraq? Currently, 11 Iraqi citizens have sued the Danish military for colluding with torture. The cases concern the transfer of the 11 Iraqis by Danish troops to Iraqi forces, where they were tortured. The suit alleges that the Danish troops transferred the Iraqis despite the clear likeliness that they would be tortured in Iraqi custody.

This newly released video would corroborate the claim that Danish troops had previously witnessed abuse and thus had knowledge that torture and ill-treatment were likely. In the video, a Danish soldier sees Iraqi troops beating a civilian. Then, he turns and comments, “Did you see? They certainly get a beating” (In Danish, “Har du set, de får bare nogle hug”).

The IRCT collaborated with forensic experts and attorney Christian Harlang, who represents the 11 Iraqis, to compile high quality medico-legal reports that verified that they had in fact been tortured following the transfer.

“My examinations of the eleven Iraqis left me in no doubt that they had been physically and mentally tortured,” said Jørgen Lange Thomsen, Professor of Forensic Medicine at the University of Southern Denmark, who took part in the examinations.

We hope at the least that this new information get the Danish judicial system moving, after several blocks and delays have hindered the process of these torture victims from accessing justice.

See also our previous blog post on the allegation of torture from 11 Iraqi citizens against the Danish military

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“These stories should never be forgotten.” Forensic documentation in the Khmer Rouge trials

Hanging on the wall in Steen Holger Hansen’s office is a hunk of twisted metal.

“It’s part of a German aeroplane shot down by the Americans during World War Two,” he notes. “It was found in Southern Denmark just ten years ago, although it crashed more than 60 years ago. I wrote the death certificate for the German pilot, and he was finally buried properly.”

Dr Hansen’s office is lined with similar objects; objects that, for him, tell stories. As a forensic pathologist at the University of Copenhagen, he is in some ways a story-teller, and a historian.  His mission to Cambodia last year was of particular historical significance:  he had to find evidence of torture, evidence that victims had been brutalised by state authorities, from more than 30 years ago, during the Khmer Rouge era.

Dr Hansen took part in the forensic investigation mission to Cambodia last year as one of three health and medical experts, which included Marina Staiff of Switzerland and Pierre Duterte of France. Dr Staiff and Dr Duterte were tasked with the psychological assessment of 11 clients of the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO); Dr Hansen was there to conduct the physical examination of those clients.

The team included, from left to right: IRCT’s Head of Legal and Advocacy Miriam Reventlow; forensic psychologists Dr Marina Staiff of Switzerland and Dr Pierre Duterte of France; translator Mr Ngoun Ngoeun; and forensic pathologist Dr Steen Holger Hansen of Denmark.

When he traveled last year to Cambodia, he says, he approached the task – that of examining those claiming torture to verify their allegations – through near-endless research. He read all the books he could find on the country’s devastating history, the four years of Khmer Rouge rule from 1974 to 1979, during which half the population was killed in labour camps and through extrajudicial executions and torture.

He also visited the infamous Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former high school turned torture centre during the Khmer Rouge period. There he noted particular leg shackles – metal bars in a D-shape. One part of this story.

Leg shackles displayed at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Photo by Steen Holger Hansen.

He was particularly pessimistic about this task, he says. He read  crushing personal testimonies from that four-year peiriod. But he was in doubt about his possible role in helping them.

“This was more than 30 years ago, and I thought I would probably not be able to do anything. Even with very recent torture, there can be difficulty in finding physical confirmation in an examination.”

Getting the evidence

TPO, an IRCT member, sits in a tall, modern building in the capital Phnom Penh. They offer a vast array of psychosocial services, in particular for victims of sexual and gender-based violence and victims of the genocide of the 1970s. They are providing assistance to victims of the genocide who have come forth as witnesses in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), the tribunal that, since 2007, has been tasked with trying former Khmer Rouge officials on crimes against humanity, including war crimes, murder, torture and genocide. There are many thousands of survivors of the genocide who have registered as witnesses in the cases.

The 11 clients that the three doctors examined were among these thousands registered in ‘Case 002’ at the ECCC. The hybrid tribunal brings together the Cambodia judiciary and international experts to assist in the ongoing trials of Khmer Rouge leaders. Only one case – Case 001 – has concluded. The ECCC found Khang Khek Leu, often called ‘Duch’, guilty of crimes against humanity, including murder and torture. During the regime, Leu ran the Tuol Sleng prison.

Dr Hansen tells me that Tuol Sleng, now a museum, provided much of the research he conducted alongside the examination of the 11 clients. There, he says, an estimated 20,000 people were detained during those four years of whom there are only seven known survivors . The rest were killed, either through devastating incarceration, torture, and murder or labour camps. But it was in Tuol Sleng that Hansen saw the D-shaped leg shackles. These particular shackles were also depicted in the art work of Vann Nath, one of the handfuls of survivors of Toul Sleng.

At right, the image shows the scars that are consistent with the allegations of leg shackles. At left is a painting by the Cambodian artist Vann Nath depicting the degrading conditions of Tuol Sleng and the particular leg shackles used. Photo by Steen Holger Hansen

On all of the clients that claimed they were shackled during their torture were small scars along their ankles. They were extremely faint. But they were there.

“These marks were consistent with their testimonies. We say that findings are consistent with claims of torture. We do not directly say, ‘Yes, these people were tortured.’ That is the job of the judiciary. But yes, all the shackle scars were highly consistent with the allegations.”

Further clients had marks of burns caused by metal rods. Others had marks from arms binds around their elbows. The physical scars of torture, nearly 30 years after they occurred, still testify to their agonizing experiences at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Old scars can still tell stories.

Forensic evidence at the ECCC

It is not known yet if this forensic evidence will be used in the ECCC in Case 002. Three top Khmer Rouge leaders are one trial: Ieng Sary, former foreign minister; Nuon Chea, the regime’s second in command; and Khieu Samphan, a former head of state. A fourth, Ieng Thirith, who was the social affairs minister, was found unfit to stand trial, reportedly because she has Alzheimer’s, and was dismissed from the case. All four are more than 80 years old.

Although it remains a possibility, Dr Hansen is doubtful over whether he will be called to testify to the tribunal. The use of forensic documentation is still not well-enough understood throughout the world, even among the judiciary, and with a witness list numbering well over a thousand, there is still much evidence to go through. The process allowed anyone with an allegation to come forth, provide testimony and register as a witness; it included allegations of war crimes, genocide, murder, rape, other sexual violence, forced marriage, forced labour, and massive accounts of neglect resulting in starvation and death from untreated medical needs.

However, regardless of whether or not he testifies, Dr Hansen remains extremely positive about the experience. “We now know that you can confirm torture allegations that are nearly 30 years old. We know that we should not discount the possibility of finding forensic evidence even from such old cases. People often ask me, ‘How can you read about these cases?’ People say, ‘It’s just so terrible to read this.’ It is terrible. But we should read and learn, and then you can help. What I’m saying is just that these stories should never be forgotten.’

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

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“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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Taking the Istanbul Protocol forward

Creating national plans for documenting torture – and UN monitoring of it – is hopefully the next stage for IRCT’s work with the Istanbul Protocol

A main impediment for torture victims to access justice is their lack of access to have physical and mental trauma documented by qualified medical experts. Without such evidence, cases are often dismissed without trial and the victims branded as lacking credibility.

Simply, for torture victims to take a case forward and for perpetrators to be held accountable, victims need access to documentation of their trauma provided by qualified experts.

For more than 10 years, the IRCT and key partner organisations have been working on ensuring effective access for all torture victims to a competent, independent and impartial medical/psychological examination of their trauma. This has mainly been done through promotion of the Istanbul Protocol, the UN-recognised standard and guide on documenting torture.

For example, through the IRCT’s collaboration with key forensic scientists, we have been able to use the Istanbul Protocol in key torture cases, such as with Khaled Said in Egypt.

One aspect of this work is to ensure that international and regional human rights mechanisms promote Istanbul Protocol implementation when they discuss human rights implementation with States. Last week in Geneva, two important events revitalised our belief that this ambitious objective can actually be achieved.

On Friday, Human Rights Foundation Turkey, Physicians for Human Rights, REDRESS and the IRCT co-hosted a meeting with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and several of her staff to kick off the drafting of an action plan for national implementation of the Istanbul Protocol.

This plan, which will be developed in consultation with experts from across the globe, will set the framework for future activities aimed at building national systems for documenting torture. The plan, based on 10 years of experience and learning by the stakeholders, will tackle such issues as legal reform, raising awareness of professionals – such as immigrations officials and judges – that come in contact with torture victims,  and monitoring and quality control. This will set the policy framework for much more concerted efforts on Istanbul Protocol implementation in the years to come. In this regard it was particularly encouraging to hear the strong support from the high commissioner herself, Navi Pillay, who has taken a very implementation-focused approach to her mandate.

With a strong implementation framework in the pipeline, the IRCT has worked actively to ensure that UN human rights monitoring mechanisms make strong and targeted recommendations on torture documentation to States.

The latest of these activities took place the day before the meeting with the High Commissioner. Here, two colleagues and I participated in a discussion with the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture on how strengthen its torture documentation recommendations to States. The dialogue was based on a discussion paper developed by the IRCT where we set out a wide range of concrete initiatives that can be recommended to States wishing to improve torture victims’ access to documentation. The intention was to initiate a process of reflection among the SPT members on how they can advance their work in these areas. It was therefore very encouraging to see the level of engagement from many SPT members and the subsequent decision for the SPT medical group to further consider the discussion paper.

Having worked for five years on Istanbul Protocol implementation, it is very encouraging to see these developments taking place at a fairly rapid pace, and it generates renewed energy to move forward with the next initiatives. This will include a combination of international policy initiatives and concrete analysis of access to torture documentation in individual countries.


By Asger, IRCT’s Legal Officer and Geneva representative

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“What you really need is justice”

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.

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Conference to enhance the use of forensic evidence to expose torture

Today is the first day of our conference in Washington, D.C. on  the use of forensic evidence in the fight against torture. Speakers will include current UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez; Claudio Grossman, the chair of the UN Committee against Torture; and other legal and medical experts on torture and documentation from around the world.

To follow the conference, you can watch the webcast from our partners the American University Washington College of Law (Wednesday and Thursday) or follow us on Twitter, where we will use the event hashtag #ExposeTorture.

Here is the full agenda of the event.

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