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Torture is not just violent interrogation for confession. And it’s not only keeping prisoners in appalling conditions. It’s also, and most likely to be, the police baton cracking the skull of the fallen protester; the indiscriminate firing of tear gas cannisters at close range into a crowd, turning a lawful tool of control into an illegal and lethal projectile; or the inherently disproportionate force of using a spiked baton against people on a peaceful march.
As authoritarianism rises globally, so do protests for democracy and human rights. Violence by riot police, security forces, and soldiers against protesters is often the most extensive application of the State’s power to torture and ill-treat its citizens. Protests are a principal fault-line where State power and citizen’s rights meet. Thus, it’s a principal fault-line for IRCT’s mission to expose torture and fight for accountability.
Protests are where State and citizens meet. Too often – in dictatorships and democracy – they end in police brutality that can amount to torture and ill-treatment. That’s why the IRCT and the Human Rights Centre, University of California Berkeley Law have produced a Protest Toolkit to empower protesters, activists, and human rights defenders to collect high quality evidence of unlawful violence by security forces.
Exposing Torture in Europe’s ‘Last Dictatorship’
In Belarus, the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ ‘Special Purpose Police Detachment’, known by its Belarusian acronym OMON, was a leading perpetrator of what the IRCT found to be “systematic torture and ill-treatment” against Belarusian citizens detained for protesting 2020’s rigged presidential elections in Europe’s last dictatorship. The OMON serve as riot police, and members wear balaclavas to keep their identity secret.
Accountability for Police Brutality in Nigeria
Nigeria’s security forces have been in crisis for a decade, battling Islamists in the north, separatists and oil militias in the south, and a wave of organised crime. Amid the chaos, the State’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) became notorious for torturing citizens with complete impunity, leading to a wave of mass protests across the country, that were met with more police violence, torture and extrajudicial killings.
Amid the national outrage, IRCT member PRAWA played a leading role in convincing the Nigerian government to disband the unit in 2020 and retrain its officers. The National Human Rights Commission subsequently set up Independent Investigative Panels, at both state and federal level, to gather evidence of torture and ill-treatment and other human rights violations committed by SARS. PRAWA’s director was appointed as a member of the federal investigative panel. IRCT and PRAWA provided online trainings to both sets of panels on how to engage effectively and respectfully with victims, how to collect and assess evidence of torture using the Istanbul Protocol and how to determine and award meaningful reparations.
As a result of the trainings, the IRCT was requested to provide technical support to the federal and state-level panels responsible for investigating and issuing recommendations for reparation, accountability and prevention. The Investigative Panels are now finishing their work, states have begun paying survivors damages, and the IRCT is analysing the evidence gathered.
Towards a Ban on Torture Trade
The IRCT’s expertise on torture and ill-treatment during protest saw its staff appointed first to the European Union’s (EU) Expert Group for the Implementation of the EU Anti-Torture Regulation, which aims to ban the trade of goods that are used for torture or the death penalty, and a few months later to the UN Expert Group drafting the first set of international rules to ban States and companies buying and selling violent law enforcement equipment, such as police batons with spikes or electric charges, widely used in torture.
Read the Expert Group’s first report, ‘Towards torture-free trade: examining the feasibility, scope and parameters for possible common international standards’.