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26 October 2000 Edition

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Knowing the cases

BY SOLEDAD GALIANA

Every human being supposedly has the right to live free from the threat of torture. However, Amnesty International's latest report points out that torture continues to be used throughout the world, as an instrument of political repression.

In many parts of the world, those who challenge the prevailing order are still likely targets of torture and ill treatment. In the year 2000, torture is not only confined to military dictatorships or authoritarian regimes. Once again we discover how torture is inflicted in so-called `democratic' states too, although the mainstream media decided to highlight only those cases in developing countries, with bad human rights records.

The persistence of torture at this moment in history is an indictment of the collective failure of governments to honour the pledge their predecessors made more than 50 years ago in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: ``No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment''.

Torture is still affecting the most marginalized and discriminated against peoples in society. The Amnesty International report states that ``the victims of torture are criminal suspects as well as political prisoners, the disadvantaged as well as the dissident, people targeted because of their identity as well as their beliefs. They are women as well as men, children as well as adults''.

Common methods of torture and ill-treatment reported since 1997 include electric shocks (more than 40 countries), rape and sexual abuse in custody (more than 50 countries), suspension of the body (more than 40 countries), beating on the soles of the feet (more than 30 countries), suffocation (more than 30 countries), mock execution or threat of death (more than 50 countries) and prolonged solitary confinement (more than 50 countries). Other methods included submersion in water, stubbing out of cigarettes on the body, being tied to the back of a car and dragged behind it, sleep deprivation and sensory deprivation.

In more than 80 countries, people reportedly died as a result of torture or ill treatment by state officials. Most of the torturers were police officers. Beatings of criminal suspects may be so routine that even the victims themselves do not recognize them as torture.

In the absence of proper training and investigative resources, police may resort to torture or ill treatment as ``short-cut methods'' to extract confessions and gain convictions, the report says. Those who wish to see tougher action against rising crime and support `zero tolerance' measures, sometimes advocate such violence.

Police officers are by far the most common state agents of torture. Some governments use torture as part of their strategy for holding on to power. When society's defences are down, any opportunistic pretext - such as the need to combat `terrorism', the fight against crime, or hostility to groups such as asylum-seekers - may be used as a licence to torture.

Knowing the cases

In Western Europe, a pattern of foreign nationals dying during deportation has emerged, apparently as a result of excessive use of force by police and dangerous methods of restraint. This has been alleged in relation to such cases in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and the UK. Asylum-seekers have also been ill treated in detention.

Allegations of racist ill treatment are rarely investigated effectively. Violent raids on Romani households or communities by masked police officers have been reported in Bulgaria, Slovakia and Hungary. Police officers in these countries and in Romania are often reported to resort to ill treatment of Roma to intimidate their communities or to extract confessions. Many Roma victims do not complain about their ill treatment for fear of reprisals.

In Britain, the police have been found negligent in their response to racist attacks. An inquiry into the police investigation of the racist killing of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993 found that the investigation had been fundamentally flawed ``by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership by senior officers''. In 1999 the Police Complaints Authority found three officers guilty of neglect of duty for failing to carry out a thorough and impartial investigation into the case of Ricky Reel, an Asian student drowned in London in October 1997.

Similarly, in the USA, the Rodney King case set in motion an intense debate into police brutality. Rodney King and his two passengers were ordered out of their vehicle by police, following a car chase on 3 March 1991. King was struck twice with an electro-shock taser gun. The video tape showed that he was then subjected to 56 baton blows and kicked and punched by three uniformed officers while twenty one other officers stood by. Rodney King sustained multiple injuries, including a broken cheekbone, broken ankle and skull fractures. In April 1992 four police officers charged in the case were acquitted in a state court. The controversial jury decision sparked off serious rioting in Los Angeles in which more than 50 people died. However, in April 1993, two of the officers were convicted of federal civil rights charges in the case and sentenced to 30 months' imprisonment.

Political persecution is, of course, not an oddity within the European Union. Amnesty International's 2000 report, highlights the case of ETA suspect Nekane Txarpartegi, who was arrested in Tolosa (Gipuzkoa) in March 1999 by Civil Guards. She was reportedly held incommunicado for five days. Before being taken for interrogation in Madrid, she was driven to a wood near Etxegarate. During the journey she was beaten. She was forced to get out of the car and kneel as a gun was pointed at her head, in a simulation of execution. Insulating tape was placed round her hands and legs, her hands were cuffed, her legs tied with a cord and her head covered with a plastic bag. She was then beaten again. She claimed that throughout the days of interrogation by Civil Guards at Tres Cantos, Madrid, she was held under restraint and beaten mainly by ``protected'' hands on her head and shoulder, sexually abused, threatened with rape, and kicked each time she fell to the ground. Txarpartegi later received treatment at the Hospital Gregorio MaraƱon. A medical report from the prison of Soto del Real (Madrid) referred to a number of injuries that matched her torture accusations.
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