The Continuing Fight to End Torture

By the Cogroup Specialists

It’s a ugly subject — torture. But despite being outlawed internationally under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions, its use has continued in three-quarters of the world. June 26 is observed each year as the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. Amnesty International has fought for the abolition of torture for many years. Today, we’ll highlight a few of the many cases and let you know how to help. Please keep reading.

Liu Ping © Private

In China, Liu Ping has been intimidated and beaten for her activism on workers’ rights and against corruption in government. And that was before she was sentenced to more than six years in prison on such vague and spurious charges as “picking quarrels and provoking troubles,” “gathering a crowd to disturb order in a public place,” and “using an evil cult to undermine law enforcement.” Liu Ping stated in court that she was tortured in pre-trial detention — a common practice in China despite laws against the use of torture — and she continues to be at risk today.

In Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the systematic torture and other forms of ill-treatment of Palestinian children at the hands of Israeli authorities has been highlighted recently. Israel is the only country in the world that automatically prosecutes children in military courts that lack fundamental fair rights and guarantees. Amnesty has reported that Israeli forces have “subjected Palestinian detainees, including children, to torture and other ill-treatment with impunity, particularly during arrest and interrogation,” with methods including “beatings, slapping, painful shackling, sleep deprivation, use of stress positions and threats.”

While Israel ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991, the protections are only enforced for children living in Israel proper, occupied East Jerusalem (although the protections have been eroded over the past few years) and Jewish children living in the unlawful Israeli settlements in the rest of the occupied West Bank. Israel does not provide the same safeguards to Palestinian children living under occupation in the West Bank.

In Mexico, Amnesty’s report “Surviving Death: Police and Military Torture of Women in Mexico” documents how the police and armed forces routinely torture and ill-treat women, and that sexual violence is routine during arrest and interrogation. AI’s report indicates that gender stereotypes play a specific role in the torture or other ill-treatment of women. Specifically, the torturer inflicts pain and suffering on women in distinct ways, often through the use of sexualized violence. Amnesty researchers interviewed 100 women who had reported violence during arrest and found that all of them described some form of sexual harassment or psychological abuse. 72% of the women reported sexual violence during arrest or in the hours that followed and 33% reported they had been raped. The women also reported severe beatings, threats of rape against them and their families, near-asphyxiation, electric shocks to the genitals, groping of breasts, and pinching of nipples.

These women’s experiences represent a snapshot of a wider issue, which involves the use of torture and other ill-treatment to incriminate and imprison people for serious offences in the context of the so-called “war on drugs.” Authorities often consider women easy targets for arrest because they perceive women as the weakest link in the trafficking chain, while traffickers often consider such women “expendable.” Regardless of an individual’s identity or reason for arrest, torture remains prohibited under international and Mexican law, and Mexican authorities must do more to ensure their military and police comply with these legal and moral obligations.

In Mauritania, detainees reported that they were tortured during pre-trial detention in order to extract confessions and intimidate them. People held in police stations including the Commissariat in Nouakchott (the capital) were routinely placed in prolonged solitary confinement, which has been condemned by the UN Human Rights Committee as a violation of the prohibition of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Amnesty has reported that human rights defenders in Mauritania who speak out against persistent practices of slavery and discrimination in the country have faced arbitrary arrest, torture, detention in remote prisons and the systematic banning of their gatherings. In 2016, 13 activists of the anti-slavery organization Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement in Mauritania were arrested after a protest against a slum eviction in Nouakchott. Some of the activists were subjected to torture and other ill-treatment in order to extract “confessions.” They were interrogated at night, beaten, chained, subjected to death threats, deprived of food, water and sleep and denied access to toilets, showers, as well as a doctor. Nevertheless, the court rejected the complaint of torture during pre-trial hearings. The appeals court later acquitted three of the 13 human rights defenders and reduced the sentences of seven others who were released the same month. The three remaining defendants were given prison sentences and transferred to a prison 1,200 kilometers away from the capital. While one defendant, Abdallahi Abou Diop, was released in January 2017, having served his sentence, the remaining two defendants, Moussa Biram and Abdallahi Mattalah, remain in prison.

In Russia, Amnesty has documented reports of torture and other ill-treatment in prisons and detention centers. The conditions during prisoner transports amounted to torture and other ill-treatment, and in many instances, to enforced disappearance.

In one particular case in Russia, film director Oleg Sentsov, a student Aleksandr Kolchenko, and a social activist Gennady Afanasyev were convicted after grossly unfair trials in Russian military courts. All three men are Ukrainian citizens from Crimea, but in violation of international law have been transferred from occupied Crimea to Russia and tried under Russian law. Oleg Sentsov was detained at his home by Russian State Security (FSB) officers on the night of May 10, 2014. He later complained that when they detained him, the FSB officers tortured him by putting a plastic bag over his head and suffocating him until he passed out. They threatened him with rape and murder and forced him to confess to organizing explosions, terrorist acts and illegal possession of firearms. Oleg Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for “setting up a branch of a terrorist group” and “having organized terrorist acts in April 2014,” shortly after the Russian occupation and annexation of Crimea. Aleksandr Kolchenko was sentenced to 10 years in a strict regime labor camp for “committing terrorist acts.” Gennady Afanasyev was originally sentenced to seven years in a labor camp, but agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with the investigators by testifying against Sentsov and Kolchenko in exchange for a lighter sentence.

In Sri Lanka, torture has long been reported across the country. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka said recently that torture was “routine” and practiced throughout the country, mainly by police. A UN expert found that 80% of those arrested under security legislation in late 2016 had complained of torture and other ill-treatment.

Torture is illegal in the Philippines. In 2009, the Philippine government passed the Anti-Torture Act, which penalizes actions by persons in authority or their agents that cause “severe pain, exhaustion, disability or dysfunction” or actions “calculated to affect or confuse the mind and/or undermine a person’s dignity and morale.” Section 6 of the law also guarantees that a “state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability, or any other public emergency, or a document or any determination comprising an ‘order of battle’ shall not and can never be invoked as a justification for torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.” However, since the declaration of martial law in Mindanao on May 23, 2017, at least 22 reported cases of torture have been documented by the Philippine human rights network, Karapatan. Among these cases are the reported torture of young farmers Janry Mensis, 22, and Jenry (an alias), 17, from Malamudao, Compostela Valley. On November 28, 2017 in Tagum City, Davao del Norte, Janry and Jenry were allegedly arrested by the police without any warrant after being accused of theft and were later turned over to officers of the Philippine Army’s 71st Infantry Battalion. Army officers reportedly accused the two men of being members of the opposition New People’s Army and tortured them for eight days. Army officers took them to an isolated mountainous area and threw them into a pit. The two men were then doused with kerosene and set on fire. They pretended to be dead and were later able to escape despite being burned. On March 2018, Janry and Jenry filed a complaint at the Commission on Human Rights, the first torture complaint against the Philippine Army since the government’s declaration of martial law in Mindanao.

Tomb of Faysal Baraket © Amnesty International

In Tunisia, tens of thousands of people were tortured under the former government of President Zine el-Abdine Ben Ali, which was overthrown in 2011. Several people, including students, were even tortured to death for their participation in unions and opposition movements. In 2014, the independent Committee for Truth and Dignity (Instance de Verité et Dignité, IVD) was established to process requests for members of the former regime who committed these acts of torture to be held accountable. The IVD’s work was recently threatened when the Parliament voted not to extend its mandate for one year, as permitted under the country’s Transitional Justice law, and it has consistently faced challenges in completing its work due to lack of cooperation by the Tunisian government. The IVD has thus far referred 14 cases to court, including the case of death under torture of Faysal Barakat.

Although the Tunisian government subsequently agreed to allow the IVD to continue its mandate, the process of delivering justice for the torture survivors and their families remains in jeopardy. Tunisia must seize this historic opportunity to break the cycle of impunity for torture by ensuring judicial proceedings happen in an independent and transparent manner without obstruction or pressure. Please email the Tunisian government to show support for the IVD and help claim truth and justice for the victims of torture.

In Morocco, Amnesty has been advocating on behalf of Ali Aarrass, a Moroccan-Belgian citizen who was forcibly extradited from Spain. Since his return to Morocco, Aarrass has been held in prisons and subjected to multiple forms of torture, including being beaten on the soles of his feet, given electric shocks to the testicles, suspended for prolonged periods by his wrists, having interrogators stub out their cigarettes on his body, being stripped naked, and being prevented from sleeping. His torture was confirmed in 2012 by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention also reported that Aarrass’s conviction in 2012 (following which he received a 12-year prison sentence) was solely on the basis of confessions extracted under torture. The Moroccan government responded to Aarrass’s claims of torture by carrying out a forensic medical examination in December 2011, but the examination report concluded that Aarrass bore no signs of torture. However, several independent experts from the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims found that the examination report fell short of international standards on forensic medical examinations of torture. Meanwhile, despite several UN decisions confirming that Aarrass’s human rights have been violated, the Moroccan and Spanish governments have not offered him redress, and the Belgian government has resisted providing him consular assistance. Amnesty continues to organize solidarity actions for Aarrass.

Torture and other forms of ill-treatment by authorities across Central Asia and neighboring countries remain an issue at large in the region. In context of the systematic condoning of unfair trials, impunity, politically motivated arrests, and failed investigations into deaths in custody, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan have become notorious for torture and ill-treatment in their prisons and a severe lack of accountability thereof. In Azerbaijan, detained human rights defender Taleh Khassmammadov alleged that he was beaten and then denied adequate medical attention, while youth activist Bayram Mammadov was arrested on fabricated charges due to his participating in a political protest, and then was severely beaten and threatened with rape.

In Tajikistan, after representing several members of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, lawyer Buzurgmekhr Yorov was arrested. He reported that prison guards subjected him and other cellmates to regular beatings, including to the head, using their legs, arms and batons while insulting, humiliating and threatening them. He was also subjected to solitary confinement at least four times as punishment for what a prison official explained to the media were “violations of the detention regime.”

We should note that there is a distinct possibility that there are many more cases for which Amnesty International and other human rights organizations do not have access for discovery and reporting. In some cases, the security forces pressure relatives not to seek support from human rights organizations, and not to file complaints about alleged human rights violations — robbing the families and the survivors of their rights to truth and justice.

What’s the best way you can fight torture? Besides taking action on the cases described above (see the links to do so), you can join Amnesty International today! Our activists are in the front lines against torture in many countries around the world. With your help, we can hope to finally end this scourge.

The “Cogroup Specialists” consist of the following Amnesty International USA country/ thematic specialists: Viachaslau Bortnik (Eurasia), Edith Garwood (Israel/OPT/Palestine), Fida Hammami (Tunisia), Sabina Henneberg (Tunisia), Nerve Macaspac (Philippines), Ken Mayers (Morocco), Jim McDonald (Sri Lanka), Gladys Melo-Pinzon (Mauritania), Kaitlyn O’Shaughnessy (Women’s Human Rights) and Ella Shen (Central Asia).

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