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UN: Panel Examines Possible Mistreatment Of Prisoners

  • Roland Eggleston

A United Nations panel is meeting in Geneva this week to review how several countries are implementing the UN Convention against Torture and other forms of cruel and inhuman treatment. Among those whose records are being reviewed are Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan as well as Western countries such as Austria, Finland, and Malta. RFE/RL correspondent Roland Eggleston sends this report from Geneva.

Geneva, 16 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The fact that a government is asked to appear before the UN panel does not imply that it is suspected of breaching the Convention, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1984. All 118 governments which have signed the Convention are obliged to appear before a panel of ten independent experts at regular intervals and report on how they are fulfilling their commitments. This is the first year that Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan have been asked to do so.

The UN Convention defines torture as being "any act by which severe pain or suffering is intentionally inflicted on a person" to intimidate him, to force him to make a confession, or to obtain information.

Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan submitted individual reports about a year ago on what they are doing to stop the mistreatment of prisoners and suspects. This week, they are answering questions from the panel of 10 experts about these reports and are explaining points which are unclear. The panel has on the table reports from non-governmental organizations, particularly Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Their reports include accounts of beatings and mistreatment of prisoners and suspects, usually based on interviews with the victims or their relatives.

The hearings in Geneva are a three-stage process. After the governments have been questioned by the panel they are given a day to prepare answers to the questions which have been raised. Then the panel of experts takes a day to prepare a final report in which it makes recommendations on what the government could and should do to improve the situation.

There are no direct penalties for breaching the Convention. However, a bad report can have a negative effect on a country's application to join the Council of Europe, which sets down human rights as a condition of entry.

The chairman of the session, Peter Burns of Canada, begins each day by declaring that no one is on trial. It is basically an exchange of information. There are no prosecutors or defense lawyers.

Representatives of the NGO groups are in the room to monitor what goes on but they are not permitted to intervene or ask questions. There are no witnesses giving evidence of beatings in a police cell or of other mistreatment. The hearings are quiet and polite. The government representatives make statements about what they are doing to implement the UN Convention and then answer questions from the panel of experts. The experts questioning Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan this week come from across the world, including Russia, China, Denmark, and Slovenia.

Azerbaijan was represented at this week's hearing by the deputy prosecutor general, Fikret Mamedov, assisted by representatives of the Justice, Interior and Security ministries. As he explained, the 1995 Azerbaijani Constitution prohibits torture and humiliating treatment. It is also a criminal offense for investigators to force witnesses or an accused person to give false testimony. But Mamedov was told that despite all these provisions, international organizations continue to receive persistent allegations that law enforcement officials in Azerbaijan have engaged in torture and ill-treatment. Mamedov was asked why the current criminal code does not explicitly make torture a criminal offense, although individual articles do outlaw "various forms of mistreatment."

Other questions put to the deputy prosecutor general indicate the sort of things which arouse the suspicions of the UN committee. Some panel members said they were uneasy about what happens when a person is placed in pre-trial detention. The panel says that in Azerbaijan, there is no requirement for a person to be brought promptly before a judge or another judicial officer. There are reports of cases in which an individual has had to wait days or even weeks before being brought before a judge.

Other reports claim that some suspects have not been allowed to consult a lawyer until he has been brought before a judge -- even though the constitution allows a suspect prompt access to a lawyer of his own choice. An Amnesty International report gives several examples of people who claim their constitutional rights were not respected when they were arrested. The report identifies a number of people who claim to have been beaten or suffered other mistreatment.

In Azerbaijan's case, the panel of experts also asked several questions about what happens when a judge suspects that some of the evidence was obtained by beating the accused. It is against Azerbaijani law for a court to accept such evidence. But how does a judge react when that is the only evidence and without it the case will collapse?

Questions like these are directed not only against Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. The hearings on the situation in Finland , for instance, focused partly on its refusal to pass a law specifically banning the use in court of a statement made under physical pressure. In practice, Finnish courts do not accept such statements, but it is not expressed in law. In another hearing Austria was asked questions about the supervision and control of the police. Malta was asked about reports of mistreatment of prisoners.

Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan will be asked different questions when their turn comes to meet the panel but the overall procedures will be the same. The chairman of the investigating panel, Peter Marshall, says the goal is not to put individual countries on trial. The purpose is to help governments meet the commitments they accepted when they signed the Convention against torture and other forms of cruel and inhuman treatment. In turn, that helps strengthen democracy and the rights of the individual citizen.