We hope you saw the very good news that a court in Germany sentenced Eyad al-Gharib, a former Syrian intelligence officer, to four-and-a-half years in prison for his role in aiding and abetting the torture of detained protesters in Damascus. This was an incredibly important moment in the long campaign for justice for Syrians.
It’s a historic verdict – the first of its kind for crimes under international law committed by a Syrian regime official and a big victory for all the Syrian victims, witnesses, investigators, campaigners, and lawyers who worked on this case. They helped ensure crimes were documented and legal files built for prosecution and without them this trial would not have been possible.
Many of these Syrian HRDs are AIUK’s partners who we’ve been assisting and training for several years in Germany, France, Turkey, Lebanon, the US and UK. Most are victims of torture themselves. The Syrian Centre for Media (SCM) is one of AIUK’s key partners and we’ve delivered a range of training for them, including nine holistic security workshops which we finished last week.
Their director is Mazen Darwish – he’s a torture survivor and a human rights lawyer and he was instrumental in securing this verdict. We made a video of him as the news of the verdict was coming in. The video is here and in this link.
This was the first guilty verdict but there will be more, including hopefully in the case of Anwar Raslan – a more senior figure than al-Gharib. The verdict on that case should be in September or October this year and we will make sure we are amplifying our Syrian partners again when that verdict is heard.
UK likely to abandon human rights concerns in its rush for trade deals
News today (3 January 2021) that the government has agreed a comprehensive trade deal with Turkey has set alarm bells ringing about the future for human rights in further deals. Following our departure a few days ago from the EU, the government is trying hard to secure trade deals around the world to replace any problems which might occur limiting trade with them.
The human rights situation in Turkey is dire. Journalists and human rights defenders have been jailed on vague charges of the terrorism kind. Newspapers have been closed. Torture is common in police stations and there is a culture of impunity for the security forces. Thousands of people are denied work accused of being terrorists or aiding terrorists. Essentially the rule of law has all but broken down.
We do of course have to trade around the world and if we only did so with those with clean hands, business would be rather thin. We do not have to sell them arms however to make the region less stable and enhance the president Erdogan’s ability to control his people. Liz Truss’s unquestioning enthusiasm for a trade deal seemingly at any cost is to be deprecated.
Does regaining sovereignty mean selling anything to anyone?
Will this be repeated around the world with all sorts of regimes who mistreat their citizens, use torture routinely and are indifferent to human rights? Time will tell but it is to be hoped that the desire to secure deals at any price, no questions asked, does not become the norm. Is this what ‘regaining our sovereignty’ means? Freedom to sell arms and other sensitive materials to some of the world’s worse regimes?
We attach a link to the Guardian‘s obituary of Sir Nigel Rodley who was a key member of Amnesty and did so much to get the legal tools enacted in the anti-torture campaign and also worked hard to end the death penalty.
Donald Trump’s favourable comments on the use of torture have put this topic back on the agenda
As early as the third century A.D, the great Roman Jurist Ulpian noted that information obtained through torture was not to be trusted because some people are “so susceptible to pain that they will tell any lie rather than suffer it”.
President Trump said last week that ‘torture absolutely works’ and threatened its use at Guantanamo. I want to do everything within the bounds of what you’re allowed to do legally but do I feel it works? Absolutely I feel it works.” It now seems he is resiling from this after an outcry.
Amnesty disagrees that torture works. And here’s five reasons why…
1: Torture is illegal under international law. It reflects the widespread belief that torture is cruel, inhumane and morally wrong. The physical and psychological damage it causes is often permanent. Even if it was effective, it would still be wrong.
2: No ends justify torture as a means. You might be able get useful information out of torture in the short term, but in the long term it’s counter-productive. It does more damage to the reputation of the country that commits torture than any criminal or terrorist. Statistics prove that American use of torture is Al Qaeda’s number one recruiting tool.
3: Torture produces false intelligence. Some victims will say anything to make the torture stop. At best this wastes only time and resources. At worst people may be implicated and even convicted for crimes they did not commit, on the basis of false evidence.
4: While it remains illegal, information extracted through torture cannot be used as evidence in court of law. It actually makes it harder to bring people to justice for any crime they have committed.
5: You can’t condone torture even in ‘special cases’, otherwise it becomes normalised and a “torture culture” emerges across the chain of command. In the USA the CIA used waterboarding on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times, and low-ranking soldiers tortured for sport in grotesque ways in Abu Ghraib prison, in Iraq.
Of the more than 700 men held at Guantanamo Bay since 2002, many are now acknowledged as ‘merely guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.’ Originally described as “the worst of the worst,” by Vice President Cheney, many were subjected to torture particularly waterboarding. More than 400 of these men have now been released or cleared for release (Center for Constitutional Rights, 2009).
A common justification for the use of torture is the implausible ticking-time-bomb scenario. This is beloved by Hollywood and was the opening scene in the TV series 24 staring Kiefer Sutherland. It rests on several questionable assumptions: that a specific piece of “actionable” information could be used to avert the disaster; that somehow interrogators know for certain that the suspect possesses specific information about the location of the bomb; that the threat is imminent; that only torture would lead to disclosure of the information; and that torture is the fastest means of extracting this valid, actionable information.
Of course, part of the appeal of this scenario is that it also portrays the torturer as a principled, heroic figure who reluctantly uses torture to save innocent lives. This carefully rigged, forced-choice scenario pits the temporary pain of one evil person against the deaths of thousands (or even millions) of innocent people. And, once we have acknowledged that there might possibly be a situation where torture could yield precious, life-saving information, it is then a small step to conclude that we are sometimes morally obliged to use torture. While this scenario might provide a useful stimulus for discussion in college ethics courses, or an interesting plot device for a television drama, there seems no evidence that it has ever occurred. As one scholar put it, “Even though torture is not, on balance, effective or rational, it persists through its deep psychological appeal, to the powerful and the powerless alike, in times of crisis. The reality of torture is unpleasant as one FBI agent put it:
On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they had urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18 to 24 hours or more. FBI agent on visiting Guantanamo
The Inspector General of the CIA conducted a review in 2004 and although great chunks of the report were redacted, they found that interrogators assumed detainees were withholding valuable information but this was not always supported by objective evaluation of available information. Guilt was assumed despite the dubious nature of their capture. Very little actionable information was obtained and there was little evidence to show that it could not have been got by ordinary means.
Setting aside its effectiveness – or rather lack of it – the main objection is morality. Around the world governments and the various agencies working for them, use torture sometimes routinely to brutalise, suborn, humiliate and coerce their citizens. Amnesty has credible evidence that it is used by 141 countries. As the leader of the free world, America should be setting an example not joining with the sordid list of countries still carrying out this barbaric practice.
We hope President Trump’s change of mind is permanent.
Sources: Amnesty International; CIA, Inspector General Report, 2004; New York Times
The Effects and Effectiveness of Using Torture and an Interrogation Device: Using Research to Inform the Policy Debate Costanzo, Mark, Gerrity Ellen, in Social Issues and Policy Review, Vol 3, No: 9 2009
The following three factsheets have been produced by the group for use on stalls and on campaigns generally. They can be downloaded here (pdf files). One is about the group and what it does and has achieved; another is a death penalty case in Japan for the World Day Against the Death Penalty on Saturday, and the last is about refugees.
Independent judge-led inquiry into UK complicity in torture needed
Amnesty International believes that there is credible evidence that the UK has been involved in grave human rights violations perpetrated against people held overseas by other authorities since the attacks in the USA on 11 September 2001.
The UN Convention Against Torture states that ‘no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture’. It also states there should be a prompt and impartial investigation wherever there is reasonable ground to believe an act of torture has been committed.
The Human Rights Act 1998 also prohibits torture under any circumstances, and that obligation implicitly requires a prompt independent investigation of credible allegations – the more so when there appears to be a ‘systemic’ problem. The existence of evidence requires the establishment of an independent, impartial and thorough judge-led inquiry, now. Credible allegations implicate the UK in torture or other ill-treatment, unlawful detentions and renditions. Over the years, Amnesty International and others have documented cases of the UK’s involvement in these abuses, including:
UK personnel were present at interrogations of detainees held unlawfully overseas in circumstances in which the UK knew, or ought to have known, that the detainees concerned had been or were at risk of being tortured and/or whose detention was unlawful and even that they participated in such interrogations
UK personnel provided information (e.g. telegrams sent by UK intelligence personnel to intelligence services of other countries) that led the USA and other countries to apprehend and detain individuals when the UK knew or ought to have known that these people would then be at risk of torture and/or unlawful detention
The UK was involved in the US-led programme of renditions and secret detentions through, for example, the use of UK territory (e.g. Diego Garcia) and/or airspace
UK personnel forwarded questions to be put to individuals detained by other countries in circumstances in which the UK knew or ought to have known that the detainees concerned had been or were at risk of being tortured and/or whose detention was unlawful
The UK systematically received information extracted from people detained overseas in circumstances in which it knew or ought to have known that the detainees concerned had been or were at risk of torture and/or whose detention was unlawful.
A number of individuals – including former Guantánamo Bay detainees – have spoken publicly about UK involvement in their mistreatment. Shaker Aamer, who was released from Guantánamo in October 2015, after nearly 14 years without charge or trial, has said for example that a UK official was in the room when his head was beaten against a wall.
In 2008 the High Court confirmed that the UK, through its security service MI5, had facilitated the interrogation of Binyam Mohamed in the knowledge that his initial detention in Pakistan was unlawful. Then, during a two-year period, the UK continued to facilitate interviews conducted on behalf of the US authorities when it must have realised that Binyam Mohamed was being held unlawfully by a third country and knew or ought to have known that there was a real risk that he was being tortured.
Proper investigation needed
The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) has now been given the task of investigating allegations of UK complicity in torture, but Amnesty International, along with many other anti-torture organisations including the UN, believes that the ISC is wholly unsuited to the task in hand. The structural limitations of the ISC, particularly its lack of power and independence from government, means that any investigation the ISC conducts is unlikely to get to the truth, and cannot satisfy the UK’s human rights obligations. The ISC is not a traditional Parliamentary committee, even though it is made up of parliamentarians. Ministers ultimately decide what evidence the Committee can see, with the Prime Minister controlling what it can publish and even who can be a member. Crucially, the government retains the right to withhold information considered to be “sensitive” or on grounds of national security from the ISC. The definition of what constitutes sensitive information is extremely broad and notably includes information provided by a foreign intelligence agency which can object to further disclosure of that information. Any Secretary of State can determine material is sensitive and in the interests of national security should not be disclosed to the ISC.
The ISC has a poor record in holding the intelligence services to account. In 2007, three years after the rendition of the Libyan families, the ISC produced a report which said that there was “no evidence that the UK Agencies were complicit in any “Extraordinary Rendition” operations.”
In July 2010, the Prime Minister promised to establish an independent inquiry into allegations of UK involvement in torture and other human rights violations with respect to individuals detained abroad in the context of counter-terrorism operations. At the time, David Cameron specifically ruled out the possibility of the ISC carrying out the investigation, recognising that an inquiry led by a judge who is “fully independent of Parliament, party and Government” was required “to get to the bottom of the case”.
In 2011 the Detainee Inquiry was established, led by the retired judge Sir Peter Gibson. Amnesty International and a number of other organisations felt that the Detainee Inquiry fell short of the UK’s international human rights obligations and domestic obligations under the Human Rights Act to fully and independently investigate allegations of UK involvement in torture and other ill-treatment. Of most concern was that the government retained final say on what material could be disclosed to the public and that the protocol did not provide for an independent mechanism to decide on disclosure of national security material.
In January 2012 the Detainee Inquiry was suspended, after Scotland Yard announced a criminal investigation into joint UK/Libyan operations which had resulted in the rendition of Libyan opposition figures. Those investigations are ongoing.
In December 2013 the Detainee Inquiry interim report was published. It highlighted that the evidence it had received indicated that UK agents were aware of abuse of some detainees by other governments and that the UK government may have been involved in rendition. It outlined 27 separate issues that should be subjected to further investigation. Amnesty and others expected this to be followed by a proper full judge led inquiry.
Instead, on 19 December 2013, it was announced that the ISC had been tasked with examining allegations of UK complicity in torture and other ill-treatment of detainees held overseas, which had previously been the subject of the Detainee Inquiry. In September 2015 Dominic Grieve was appointed as the new Chair of the ISC. There is as yet no news on its work in this area.
This is the title of a report produced by Amnesty International concerning the use of torture in China. It was only last month that China’s president received a red carpet treatment on his visit to Britain with smiles all round. The subject of human rights was taboo and was not to be mentioned during the course of his visit. The aim was to boost trade and to secure deals such as the nuclear power plant investment.
Human rights infringements are a major issue for China and there is always the hope that there will be a steady improvement over time. Indeed, it is a favourite argument by politicians that engagement – whether through trade, culture, sport or otherwise – is the best way to effect improvements in countries still practising torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading punishments.
Only it doesn’t seem to be working in places like Saudi Arabia or China despite the huge effort put into engagement with their leaders. Amnesty has just published No End in Sight which shows that if anything, it is getting worse. Despite having signed up to UN Charter against torture, it is still widely practised in all its medieval brutality.
The rot seems to start in police stations and the system of securing confessions acts as an incentive to extract one, by force if necessary. The methods are extremely unpleasant and the least graphic (though no lest brutal) is the ‘tiger bench’ illustrated left.
The report explains the weak nature of the justice system which means no meaningful enquiries are made and that lawyers are themselves coerced or threatened if they try too hard to stop it.
It is alarming that this major nation, which is a member of the Security Council and is thus in a position to influence a lot of what happens in the world, should be steadily getting worse not better as far as human rights are concerned. It is disappointing that the opportunity to express our concerns was apparently not taken during President Xi’s visit.