Officials from the 55-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) countries are calling on repressive governments to stop using torture. A two-day OSCE-sponsored meeting in Vienna on torture is also urging member states in regions such as the former Soviet Union, the Caucasus, and Central Asia to implement international agreements allowing observers to investigate suspected cases of torture.
Prague, 7 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- OSCE officials and human rights watchdogs are warning that torture remains a widespread means of repression in many countries, despite governments formally adopting international agreements banning the practice.
An international conference on efforts to curb the use of torture is calling on governments in the OSCE area to take steps to sign and implement existing conventions.
The two-day conference in Vienna, which ends today, is organized by this year's Netherlands OSCE chairmanship, in co-operation with the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).
The meeting was attended by officials from most of the member states, as well as representatives of international organizations and human rights watchdogs. ODIHR spokeswoman Urdur Gunnarsdottir told RFE/RL, "We called the conference to discuss how torture can be prevented and to look at how the participating states [in the OSCE] are progressing [in the fight against torture]."
ODIHR director Christian Strohal said that although OSCE states have committed themselves to preventing torture and ill treatment and to punishing perpetrators, the practice continues to be widespread in the OSCE region. Strohal said that, especially after 11 September, no country is completely exempt from the problem.
The meeting highlighted the worrying situation in many former communist countries from Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.
Representatives of human rights watchdogs present at the Vienna meeting pointed to the fact that in countries of the former Soviet Union, torture remains a serious and entrenched problem -- a routine way of conducting police work and of intimidating detainees into making confessions.
Rachel Denber, acting director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW), an international rights group, told RFE/RL that there is very little accountability for torture because there's no political will to stop it and because the judiciary is not independent in many countries of the former Soviet Union.
Denber also said, "In some countries, the failure to combat torture derives from the lack of political will to reform. But in other places, torture is part of the way that repressive governments keep the population in line, and it's part of, it's one of the mechanisms of repression."
Denber described to RFE/RL the most common types of psychological and physical torture that HRW has documented in the region.
"They include things like extended sleep depravation to disorient and make someone feel very uncomfortable, to more intensive methods of psychological pressure like threatening detainees that they'll be raped -- men and women -- threatening that their relatives will be arrested, or tortured, or killed, or raped," Denber said. "Mock executions, as a particularly severe form of psychological torture and, one of the most effective forms of psychological torture is threatening people that their children will be harmed.
And then, [among] the physical forms of torture that we've documented, the most common ones are sustained, prolonged beatings, particularly beatings on the kidneys, sometimes beatings with objects that don't leave marks, like beatings through telephone books. Asphyxiation is a common one, either with the use of a gas mask or just a plastic bag. Electric shocks we've found in a number of countries, sometimes using very crude mechanisms, like an old field telephone. That's the basic repertoire."
Denber said torture is a serious problem all over Russia, and is a particular problem in Chechnya, where it is endemic.
Another country that she singled out is the Central Asian state of Uzbekistan, where she said torture is also at "crisis" levels. For years now, she said, "there's been a campaign against what the government calls religious extremism, and it's reached crisis proportions. In the past year and a half, we've seen eight people die in custody, in circumstances that look very much either the direct result of torture or in extremely suspicious circumstances that very much point to torture, and [there's] very little accountability."
Denber also spoke of cases of torture in the former Yugoslavia. She singled out Serbia, where reports say hundreds of people may have been subjected to ill treatment during the crackdown on organized crime following the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in March.
Denber said the global war on terrorism has also contributed to the perpetuation of torture in the region. "Particularly countries that are allies with the U.S. in the global campaign against terrorism, they could feel more comfortable that they wouldn't be challenged quite in the same way by the U.S. on their torture record as they were before. And they also benefited from an environment in which torture in the name of fighting terror they thought would be more acceptable. I mean, the fight against terrorism -- really, it's supposed to be all about protecting human rights," Denber said.
The Vienna meeting focused mainly on the effectiveness of measures adopted by the OSCE members to prevent torture.
It also assessed the situation in three main areas in the fight against torture -- providing safeguards during detention, prohibiting the use of evidence obtained through torture, and investigating and punishing acts of torture.
But the most important aspect was the recommendation addressed to OSCE states to sign an additional protocol to the 1985 UN Convention Against Torture, which bans the practice.
The Optional Protocol establishes a system of regular visits to be undertaken by independent international and national bodies to places where people are deprived of their liberty. The protocol was adopted in 2002 despite strong opposition by the United States, which has come under criticism for detaining hundreds of suspected Taliban fighters without charge in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
ODIHR spokeswoman Gunnarsdottir explains the importance of the protocol. "We have called for the adoption of and implementation of agreements that the states have actually signed to prevent torture -- for instance, a so-called Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against Torture, which was agreed on in 2002. It enables practical steps to be taken to prevent torture. It includes issues like regular visits to places of detention -- that's a very important issue because torture usually takes place during detention -- and to be able to make visits to prisons unannounced," Gunnarsdottir said.
ODIHR director Strohal also pointed out that the OSCE hopes the meeting will help with practical recommendations on "how to prevent pain from being inflicted on people by the states charged with protecting them."