Regional snapshot on torture in the Middle East and North Africa

Amnesty International, 2014

The Middle East and North Africa region has convulsed with upheaval for much of this decade. Initial optimism that human rights, including the right to be free from torture, would be better respected has largely given way to despair at the lack of progress or, in the case of Syria, horror at the human rights catastrophe in which torture is being committed on an industrial scale. Elsewhere, particularly in countries which have seen the fall of long-standing rulers, there has been frustration at the pace of change.


New authorities have, in some cases, taken limited positive steps, such as strengthening the legal prohibition of torture and, in the case of Tunisia, have begun a process of transitional justice. However, the factors that facilitate such abuses have so far proved to be too deeply entrenched to translate law into practice.


Conflict and post-conflict situations

Reports of torture and other ill-treatment in Syria have skyrocketed since protests in March 2011 drew a brutal response from the authorities and led to an ongoing internal conflict. The practice is used routinely against those detained for their suspected involvement in opposition activities, including peaceful activists and children. There are reports that thousands have died in custody. Amnesty International has also documented torture by armed groups.


Torture and other ill-treatment have also blighted the records of countries emerging from conflict. In Iraq, the phenomenon remains widespread in prisons and detention centres. More than 30 people are believed to have died in custody as a result of such treatment between 2010 and 2012.


In Libya the practice is rife in both state and militia-run facilities. Amnesty International has documented 23 cases of deaths under torture since the end of the 2011 conflict.


Responses to dissent, protests and perceived threats to national security

A common feature across the Middle East and North Africa is the extent to which governments have resorted to torture and other ill-treatment to clamp down on dissent and protests or to respond to perceived threats against national security.


In Egypt, during the 2011 uprising, the security forces and army used torture as a weapon against protesters. Under army rule in March 2011, women protesters were subjected to forced “virginity tests”. The current authorities are drafting new counterterrorism legislation that would, if passed, erode the existing safeguards against torture and other ill-treatment, while the practice has remained endemic.


In Iran the authorities have relied on torture and other ill-treatment as a way to obtain “confessions” which can lead to death sentences in cases ranging from repression of peaceful dissent to drug-related offences to trials of minorities. The practice is common during interrogation when detainees are generally denied access to a lawyer.


In a number of countries, the authorities have needed to respond to a genuine threat to the population posed by armed groups or individuals who have targeted civilians. However, the way in which the state conducts such operations has often been tainted by reports of torture against suspects. For example, in Jordan 11 men arrested in October 2012 for allegedly planning violent attacks in Amman claimed to have “confessed” under torture.


Moreover, government opponents and civil society activists have – often intentionally – been caught up in such operations. In Saudi Arabia, torture and other ill-treatment are frequently reported in cases of individuals suspected of security-related offences, a category that can include political opponents.


There are recent allegations of torture or other ill-treatment against detainees, some of them held on “security” grounds, in other Gulf countries, including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.


In Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, abuse of detainees during arrest and interrogation remains a serious concern, particularly in the case of Palestinians. Since 2001, more than 800 complaints of torture have been made against the Israel Security Agency, but no criminal investigation has been launched into any of them.


The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Hamas de facto administration in the Gaza Strip have both been responsible for torturing and otherwise ill-treating detainees, particularly their respective political opponents. A monitoring body established by the Palestinian Authority reported receiving 150 allegations of torture or other ill-treatment in the West Bank and 347 in Gaza for the year 2013.


Cruel, inhumane or degrading punishments

Cruel, inhuman or degrading punishments such as stoning, flogging and amputations remain on the statute books in a number of countries in the region, notably in the Gulf, but it is in Iran and Saudi Arabia where they are principally imposed.


A pattern of state failure

The entrenched patterns of torture and other ill-treatment across the region are facilitated by the fact that security forces operate largely unchecked, the judicial system relies heavily on confessions and the judicial authorities, which generally lack independence, often fail to act when faced with reports of such treatment.


At the heart of the problem is a lack of political will. In Bahrain, an international body of experts set up following international pressure in the wake of the repression of the 2011 uprising concluded that the Bahraini government had used systematic torture on detainees. The government announced that it accepted the findings, but it has failed to implement key recommendations.


Across the region, violence against women is a persistent problem. States have failed to ensure effective protection in law against such crimes committed by private individuals and tolerated them in other ways by not ensuring they are adequately investigated or prosecuted.


The general lack of accountability for serious human rights violations such as torture has been exacerbated in some countries by amnesty measures. In Yemen, the government enacted an immunity law in January 2012 that granted former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and all those who were employed by his government immunity from criminal prosecution for “politically motivated acts” carried out in the course of their duties.


In Algeria, the authorities have granted immunity from prosecution to security forces and state-armed militias who committed serious human rights violations during the 1990s internal conflict.


Steps in the right direction

There has been some progress recently towards strengthening the prohibition of torture in national legislation, particularly in Tunisia and Libya. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority and the authorities in Lebanon, where torture and other ill-treatment also remain a concern, have established codes of conduct for security forces that set out measures to prevent such abuses.


Transitional justice measures to deal with the legacy of torture and other abuses were first attempted in Morocco and Western Sahara. A commission established in 2003 underlined state responsibility for human rights violations committed by the security services between 1956 and 1999 – including torture – and awarded financial compensation to many survivors. However, it fell short of upholding the right to truth and justice for victims and torture and other ill-treatment which continue to be reported, including against supporters of self-determination for Western Sahara.


In Tunisia, a commission was mandated in December 2013 to investigate human rights violations committed since 1955. Other developments provide hope for accountability. In March 2013, the remains of Faysal Baraket, a young man who had been tortured to death in custody in October 1991, were exhumed. The examination discredited the version of the previous Tunisian government that the cause of death had been a traffic accident; judicial proceedings are ongoing.


Death in custody

In Iran, blogger Sattar Beheshti died in the custody of the Cyber Police in 2012 allegedly as a result of torture. A medical examiner’s report stated that he had died from internal bleeding in his lungs, liver, kidneys and brain. An impartial and thorough investigation into his death has yet to take place.


Excerpts from ‘Thirty years of broken promises: Torture in 2014’

AI index: ACT 40/004/2014


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