Report indicates shortcomings in European prisons | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 07.11.2013
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Report indicates shortcomings in European prisons

Torture does occur in Europe, according to a Council of Europe committee report. And not enough is being done against it. But how can torture be substantiated, especially when elusive psychological torture is employed?

There is no torture in Europe - and if there were, that would be an exception, or the one-off act of a single person. That could be the quick answer of a European citizen if asked about the human rights situation on the continent. But it would not be quite correct - even the existence of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, or CPT, proves this.

As the committee's title implies, torture is not defined only by physical abuse - the term is understood far more broadly. This year, the committee carried out investigations in 14 European countries, and traveled twice to Turkey. Most recently, it examined prison conditions in Ukraine and the deportation of "undesired foreigners" in the Netherlands.

Abuse and apathy

On Wednesday (06.11.2013) in Strasbourg, the CPT presented a report on its work from August 2012 to July 2013. The committee regularly checks the prison facilities of all countries represented in the Council of Europe - at the moment, there are 47.

Jean-Pierre Restellini, a medical doctor with the CPT, summarized the report's findings: the situation is not satisfactory in any European country. "Even in the civilized countries of Western Europe, there are shortcomings," Restellini said.

The CPT does not, however, name the countries that have especially poor human rights situations - confidentiality is required in order for the committee to carry out its monitoring unhindered.

Barbed wire

Shortcomings were identified in all European prisons

The most common problems involve the arrest and questioning of suspects. Whether they are in custody during an investigation or in confinement after having been convicted, they are not safe - also from other prisoners, according to Restellini.

In addition, Restellini said that he encountered doctors who were apathetic about the suffering of torture victims, who were only given "downright superficial" examinations. Some doctors were apparently not even able to identify the signs of torture at all.

Regardless of this, Restellini also stressed that in some places, including Russia, he saw prisons in which the medical records were kept with "exemplary thoroughness."

'White torture'

The CPT has called for more thorough investigation into abuse of prisoners in all of Europe's prisons. But prison doctors face yet another problem: that skillfully done torture leaves no traces.

Elise Bittenbinder, who works with the human rights organization Xenion, which offers psychological help for the politically persecuted, told DW a few things she's learned in her work with the victims of torture.

"Middle Ages torture methods like thumb screws are being used less often, because such methods can be proven to have taken place," Bittenbinder said. More often, so-called 'white torture' is used, which involves psychological abuse.

"Psychological torture - the distress that's associated with it, or the fear that results - is much harder to prove," Bittenbinder said.

Burden of proof on the state?

Not only prisoners have a hard time proving that they were tortured - refugees have perhaps an even harder time of it. If they apply for asylum on the grounds of torture, they have to provide proof of this - in a foreign country and in a foreign language.

Bernd Mesovic (Copyright: Pro Asyl)

Mesovic thinks government agencies should be more active in investigating torture claims

Bernd Mesovic of the Pro Asylum group in Germany sees this in his daily work. He thinks government agencies need to get involved by lifting the burden of proving torture from the refugees. The agencies should more often be the ones investigating whether the applicant was in fact tortured, he said.

Jörg Pont, a professor who worked as a prison doctor, is skeptical that this would work. He said that if government agencies were to make a government doctor in charge of such investigations, that could lead to problems.

"If the victim was tortured by someone in an official position and then along comes a doctor who is also an official, then mistrust could quickly rise," Pont said.

Bittenbinder also has her doubts about this solution. She said it must be remembered that torture victims are often traumatized. "If they were required to undergo such an examination, they could prefer to be left in peace because they no longer want to think about it," she said.

Bittenbinder pointed out that this would have a deterrent effect: "The people would be required to do something they really are not able to do."

Better-trained doctors

All the experts agree, however, that there are not enough doctors qualified to handle torture victims. "I would like," said Pont, "that more colleagues get involved with this problem; that they are trained in interviewing torture victims and learn to document these cases precisely. They must be trained to have these skills."

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