As we commemorate victims of torture on June 26, millions continue to be at risk. Frequently off the radar are the millions of ordinary people accused of petty crimes. They comprise the majority of the world’s pretrial detainees—and in many countries are routinely and systematically subjected to torture. On any given day, it is likely that approximately three million people are being held in pretrial detention. Many will spend months and even years without being tried or found guilty, languishing under worse conditions than people convicted of crimes and sentenced to prison.
People at greatest risk come from the poorest and most disadvantaged sectors of society. They are more likely to be discriminated against by the police, less able to pay bribes, and thus more likely to end up in detention. While these people are detained, discrimination usually continues and exposes them to an increased risk of torture. Problems are compounded by their inability to afford a lawyer.
A forthcoming report, Pretrial Detention and Torture, produced by the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights and the University of Bristol Human Rights Implementation Centre in collaboration with the Open Society Justice Initiative, documents the stages of the criminal justice process where detainees are at the greatest risk of torture. While torture and ill-treatment can happen during any phase, from pretrial detention to after a conviction, abuse is most likely to occur before trial.
Torture flourishes early on—usually in the first days or even hours of police custody—when the authorities seek information and/or confessions from detainees. Sadly, in most systems, the moment when police have the greatest incentive to torture and achieve an “easy” closure to their case is also the period when there are the fewest checks on police activity.
The upcoming report makes a number of recommendations:
- Reduce excessive and arbitrary pretrial detention to ensure that it is used as an exceptional measure, in accordance with international law. Fewer people in pretrial detention means fewer people exposed to the risk of torture and a reduction in overcrowding.
- Ensure early access to legal and medical assistance to enable suspects to seek advice prior to interrogation and report cases of torture. The presence of external professionals also increases the openness and transparency of the system.
- Ratify the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture (OPCA T) and establish National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs), including establishing mechanisms for the independent monitoring of police lock-ups and other places of pretrial detention.
- Invest in professional law enforcement services that use investigative techniques and practices, and discourage coercive interrogation methods.
A summary of the report is available online; contact me using the comments field below to request a copy of the full report when it becomes available.