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Iñaki Rivera: “Torture occurs in the hidden places of society and it is very hard to make it visible”

"The Observatory on the Penal System and Human Rights (OSPDH) of the University of Barcelona has started a project to create a documentation center on institutional violence."

"The Observatory on the Penal System and Human Rights (OSPDH) of the University of Barcelona has started a project to create a documentation center on institutional violence."

"We have reports from any social class, condition and origin."

"We have reports from any social class, condition and origin."

"Spain does not fulfil an international recommendation: the creation of a bank on tortures and abuse."

"Spain does not fulfil an international recommendation: the creation of a bank on tortures and abuse."

20/05/2019

Entrevistes

Iñaki Rivera, lecturer at the Faculty of Law, dedicated his academic career to the fight against torture, and against institutional violence. He has now been chosen as one of the fourteen experts in Europe –the only one from Spain- to be part of the new Observatory of National Preventive Mechanisms against Torture.

What are we talking about when referring to the fight against torture?

Torture is defined in article 1 of the 1984 United Nations Convention: any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining information or a confession. On the other hand, there is also the universal normative prohibition of submitting someone to punishment or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. An example is the solitary confinement for more than fifteen days, which exists in Spain. The international rules of the United Nations (Nelson Mandela Rules, approved in 2015) prohibits any solitary confinement from lasting more than fifteen days. And in Spain, there are many prisoners that have been in isolation for months –some, years- between twenty and twenty-two hours a day. Another example we can highlight: the serious medical neglect of prisoners with severe physical and mental suffering, who do not receive the proper treatment in jail. Regarding the prison in Zuera, Zaragoza, there was a case of a woman in wheel chair for two years, with a cancer which is reaching its final phase, without any kind of medical support in nursing, in a terrible situation. How can we classify these situations? We decided to use another name coming from international treats and jurisprudence: institutional violence in the deprivation of liberty.

Institutions of deprivation of liberty are not only prisons, there is also the juvenile penitentiary system; police stations; and more and more detention centers for foreigners; airport areas which have administrative jails where people are kept while waiting for deportation flights. Sometimes we can even understand (there is a debate on this topic) the repression context of demonstration as an object of surveillance, when people cannot march on their own and can be a presumable object of abuse.

Is there a profile for a torturer and another for the tortured one?

There is no profile for that. We have reports from any social class, condition and origin. And there is not a single body of public officers that can escape from being reported. The problem lies in the idea of deprivation of liberty and the sanction of incommunication regimes and isolation in which the prisoner is alone. The stories are identic in 90 % of the cases: the abused person says s/he received the visit of some officers in the cell to use violence to put him/her in a superman position (laying on the floor, with underwear). The person is hit by several individuals in a place where there are no cameras, mostly in isolation regimes. As for the contrary, the story told by officers says that, when facing the aggressiveness of the prisoner, they had to use the minimum strength to reduce the violence. In any case, the prisoner is always alone, without any witness to report how the others beat him. The great difficulty in the torture and abuse is the supporting evidence. Despite the authenticity of a person when telling something, sometimes it is impossible to prove it. On the other hand, we cannot ask someone from inside a confinement cell, someone who suffered abuse, to be a hero and report those situations and still remain in jail. This starts to change if there is external support: lawyers, entities. Then, other things start to appear. Torture happens in the hidden places of society and it is very difficult to make it visible.

The observatory launched by the European Council will work on the national mechanisms to prevent torture. What are those mechanisms and how will the observatory work?

In 1984, the General Assembly of the United Nations approved for the first time in the history the Convention against torture and other treatments or cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments. However, it does not set the surveillance bodies of the stated rights in that convention. In 2002, another international rule was created so that states agreed on the creation of a new body for each, named national preventive mechanism against torture.

The basic aim with which the observatory was created is to pay visits to the different countries. Some countries in Eastern Europe and Italy have already been visited. This type of visit is negotiated with the national preventive mechanism against torture in the country. The members of the observatory will try to interview the political clases and the organizations of human rights. Visits are carried out to see certain centers with the ability –and this is mandatory in the observatory- of maintaining interviews with confidentiality, without any presence of officers, with certain prisoners in a potential situation at risk of being the object of some type of abuse. And the last day of this visit is exclusively dedicated to maintain a private meeting with the national preventive mechanism against torture of that country to have the chance to ask any doubt or ask for an explanation of things that may seem shocking. The working group writes a report which is sent to the national preventive mechanism against torture of the host country, which can simply provide an acknowledgement of receipt –and that’s it: we cannot do so, we cannot do anything else- or in some situations –which is also happening-, answering the report and then ordering its publication. In any case, all the material is handed in to the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture. This committee has the international official aim of visiting the states of the European Council, but these are 47 and the visits are delayed: with the observatory, we try to be quicker.

Now I have a specific role to play in the work on the conversation with Spain, but I cannot reveal more because it is presided by a principle of confidenciality.

What is the situation in Spain?

Regarding Spain, the national preventive mechanism against lies in the institution of the ombudsman. This figure already existed, which created polemics, in the sense that the chance of creating something new may have been lost. Other countries have a mixed moled with which the national preventive mechanism against torture lies on the ombudsman by 50 %, but the other 50 % is built by civil society bodies: non-governmental organizations with experience, academic institutions… The national preventive mechanism against torture in Spain has a minoritary participation, by some civil society organization in an advising council, but without the option for visits, without votes in the meetings… They are called once a year. It seems the national preventive mechanism against torture is controled by the Spanish political power and has a low –if any- capacity to criticize its own penitentiary policy. Spain, in general, is a negationist when it comes to the phenomenon of torture and institutional violence compared to other countries. I think it has to do –this is a personal opinion- with a poor political culture, which has not been able to prosecute its own past.

Is there a global or European map of torture or institutional violence?

There is an atlas of torture which can be checked online, an initiative by Dignity, among other entities, which is a great non-governmental organization in the Scandinavian countries. There is also the Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT) with its headquartes in Geneva, which is probably the most prestigious association in this field, creating maps. The problem is how to feed these maps and what they provide. The ombudsman in Spain has a map, which is rudimentary at some point. These are databases. How are these data feed, what are they going to reflect? Are they going to show cases, reports, sentences? The difference between reporting cases and sentences can go from one hundred to one, more or less. The difference between one thing and the other is huge.

Are there any differences between Northern and Southern Europe when it comes to figures?

There can be a difference between the north and the south of Europe. The difference is also in the ratios of penitentiary population. If Spain reports about 60,000 prisoners in the whole country, this means an average of 130 prisoners for every 100,000 inhabitants. However, the ratio of prisoners in the Scandinavian countries is less: 50 per every 100,000 inhabitants. In this sense, these realities are so different that it is not strange to see the presence of institutional violence is lower in figures in the Northern countries. That does not mean these areas with a reduced penitentiary population do not detect worrying situations.

What are the figures in Spain?

Spain does not fulfil an international recommendation: the creation of a bank on tortures and abuse. There are annual reports of the national preventive mechanism against torture, the ombudsman and the State Attorney General’s Office, which report some numbers. But these data do not cover the total amount of the phenomenon of torture. As a consequence of this, in 2003, the Coordinator for the Prevention and Report of Torture was created, a platform with more than forty entities which publishes the annual report on torture. This report states something really worrying: about an average of 750 reports per year on abuse and torture, and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in Spain. About 11,000 cases over the last fifteen years. The Coordinator, with an international accredited legitimation, publishes those cases with rigorous credibility, when the report has other evidence.

Moreover, the Observatory on the Penal System and Human Rights (OSPDH) of the University of Barcelona has started a project to create a documentation center on institutional violence. We are creating a database which gathers, from the year 2001 to 2010, the existence of 492 sentences in Spain. According to the Penal Code, the term torture is only used in 10 % of these sentences, but these as a whole have crimes against the moral integrity with severe injuries to people without freedom.

Talking about five hundred sentences affecting a thousand public officers is talking about an important number.

What is the Observatory on the Penal System and Human Rights working on in order to prevent torture in Catalonia?

With the help from professionals from other European countries, the Observatory on the Penal System and Human Rights has created over the last three years a pioneer tool in Spain, the System for Documentation and Communication of Institutional Violence (SIRECOVI). In this sense we can say Catalonia is the pioneer in this subject: it is the first time an official record is created –published in the Official Journal of Generalitat de Catalunya- on this kind of violence. The Catalan Government, mostly the former minister Carles Mundó, took a brave decision when fulfilling the international recommendation of creating for the first time the public records of cases of institutional violence. The 2-year report was presented in November 2018, reporting 241 cases in Catalonia, not only on torture but mainly on degrading inhuman treatment, and we created the map for the first time. This map comes from a complex computing system, created and funded by the UB, which enables checking all the reported cases. At the momento, we can work in and visit the prisons in Catalonia.

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