Back to the Future

Some disturbing allegations are coming out of Maghaberry prison these days. In my opinion, they're just as disturbing if they're not true as if they are true – due purely to the condescending response by authorities, particularly the new Justice Minister.

 Republican prisoners are complaining of beatings, sectarian harassment, unprovoked relegations to solitary confinement and denial of visits from family and lawyers. If even one incident of this is true, it could well be a violation of Article 3 of the ECHR – the right to be free from torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

There has been a lot of controversy around the issue of torture in Northern prisons; indeed one of the seminal cases of torture before the European Court was that of Ireland v United Kingdom, in which the '5 techniques' the British used against internees were challenged as torture. At that time ('70s) the Court ruled that it was not torture, but inhuman treatment – a ruling that has been largely overturned, as the Court expands and refines its definition of what is torture (and by extension, what is inhuman or degrading treatment).

 However, the point I'm trying to make has nothing to do with whether or not what those men are suffering is a violation of Article 3 – the point is that, under the positive obligations doctrine, States have the duty – the obligation – to investigate any allegations of torture, whether by the state or by private individuals. This means that it doesn't matter if some people think it's a political ploy, or some think it's an exaggeration, or if it's actually worse than what's coming out – the state has to investigate.

Now I know that there is a judicial review this morning at the Crown Court in the case of Harry Fitzsimmons – who says he was taken to solitary confinement (for no reason), chained to the bed and had his clothes stripped off (this was in April). But one judicial review of one case simply isn't enough for the public conscience, and it almost certainly won't be enough to satisfy the European Court.

 The Justice Minister's assertion that Maghaberry prisoners are attempting to 'give the impression' that they are being abused is insulting, not only because of the allegations, but because it implies flippancy and disregard, and all but spells out his intention to not touch the matter. This is his job, and people must demand that he does it, whether you agree with the prisoners or not.

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