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Time to end 40 years of impunity for torture of ‘Hooded Men’

I led an Amnesty International delegation to Belfast in 1971 to investigate allegations we had received of internees subjected to brutal physical interrogation methods combined with measures of ‘sensory deprivation’. Those were evidently troubled times and the UK authorities were clearly not interested in any independent investigation. They had themselves issued whitewash reports and Prime Minister Heath was reported to have dismissed Amnesty International in private meetings as a “disreputable organization”.

We were however determined to find the truth regardless of whether the facts would please the authorities or not. I do still remember that trip in the bleak, tense winter of December 1971. Among those who gave testimonies, there were also a number of ex-internees who described what they had gone through. They had been severely beaten during arrest and transport. Some of them had still bruises on their bodies, one of them was black and blue over his buttock and one thigh which our medical expert found consistent with his complaint about repeated, brutal beatings. Moreover, several of those arrested had gone through a treatment which brought them to a mental breakdown.

The breakdowns had come through the combination of being forced to stand spread-eagled against a wall for many long hours, being hooded and thereby unprepared for the sudden beatings, forced to hear one hissing noise which drowned all other sounds, be deprived of food and water and prevented from sleeping.

It was evident to us that these were very grave human rights violations, indeed amounting to torture. We documented the use of the now infamous ‘five techniques’ which were combined with physical assaults and death threats to the men.

The Irish government took a bold and unprecedented step at the time and complained to the European Commission of Human Rights that the UK’s actions amounted to torture. I was deeply disappointed when the European Court of Human Rights concluded eventually in 1978 that the treatment of detainees in Northern Ireland under emergency internment powers did not amount to torture. Similar methods have since then been used against detainees the world over, for instance in the “enhanced interrogation” during the US ‘war on terror’. In other words, the ruling of the European Court had serious consequences.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that RTÉ had uncovered documents strongly suggesting that the UK government had misled the Strasbourg Court. The RTÉ programme found documents showing that the British government knew that its core argument, that the effects of techniques used on the “hooded men” were not severe or long-lasting, was untrue. In fact it suggests that the UK government knew then of the severe, long-term psychological and physical effects of the ‘five techniques’, and in fact considered them as ‘torture’. RTÉ has also unearthed a previously unseen letter which shows that UK cabinet ministers took a ‘political decision’ to permit the use of the ‘five techniques’ in Northern Ireland.

If substantiated, this was a grave, additional injustice to the victims and also promoted impunity then - and for those who have used such methods in other situations in the last four decades.

Amnesty International, the hooded men and their lawyers and NGO supporters have called on the Irish government to look carefully at the evidence and seek a reopening of that seminal ruling. I add my voice to that call.

The UK government, as a signatory of the UN Convention against Torture and the European Convention on Human Rights, must ensure that facts are clarified in this critical case and remedial action be taken.

In the years since 1971, I have travelled the length and breadth of Europe to investigate human rights violations.

If there is one thing I have learned, time does not heal all wounds if the truth doesn’t come out and justice is not done.

Thomas Hammarberg led the Amnesty International research mission to Northern Ireland in 1971 which helped expose the torture and ill-treatment of people interned under “emergency powers”. He subsequently received the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of Amnesty International in 1977 and was Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights (2006-2012).

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