Spain: Torture allegations must be investigated now

The public call for a prompt and impartial investigation comes as the Spanish government announced legal action against four directors of the Euskaldunon Egunkaria newspaper for 'falsely' accusing Civil Guards of acts of torture.

Amnesty International has criticised the Spanish Government for describing the torture allegations as false before there has been any investigation into them. The human rights organisation also expressed deep concern that Spanish authorities are holding prisoners without access to lawyers or their families for up to five days.

Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK's Director, said: 'If the Spanish Government wants to guard against false accusations of torture, it should introduce proper safeguards to ensure that it cannot happen.

'To sue alleged torture victims, or to describe allegations as false even before any thorough investigation, will only make people afraid to report allegations of torture.

'Holding people incommunicado can put them at risk of torture or ill-treatment. The Spanish Government must end this practice - but instead they are proposing to extend it,' she added.

The Spanish government declared on Monday that it had lodged a complaint with the National Court, in which it accused Martxelo Otamendi Egiguren and three other newspaper directors of 'collaborating with an armed band' (the Basque armed group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, ETA) by making torture claims as part of an ETA-inspired strategy to undermine democratic institutions.

In a letter sent to the Spanish government on Monday - hours before the Spanish government's announcement - Amnesty International had expressed concern about reports that Martxelo Otamendi, and other detainees, had been subjected to use of the 'bolsa' (asphyxiation with a plastic bag), exhausting physical exercises, threats and simulated execution. Although these forms of torture are not easily proved, once alleged they require serious and impartial investigation, whether or not a formal complaint of torture has been brought.

In its letter the human rights organisation has also expressed strong reservations about Government statements threatening legal action. It added that it was irresponsible to categorically deny the existence of torture or ill-treatment when the Government has so far failed to provide any substantive response to the 'profound concern' expressed last November by the (UN) Committee against Torture about the incommunicado regime. The Committee made recommendations which, were they to be adopted by the Government, would make it more difficult to bring false accusations.

Kate Allen said: 'Amnesty International does not believe that torture is systematic in Spain, but the Government must resist the temptation to regard all torture allegations as part of some ETA-inspired strategy'. The claims were made by detainees held incommunicado in connection with the 'precautionary closure', in February, of the newspaper Euskaldunon Egunkaria. Amnesty International opposes the use of incommunicado detention on the grounds that it facilitates torture.

Background

On 20 November 2002, Amnesty International called on the Spanish government to take immediate steps to implement the recommendations of the (UN) Committee against Torture, which expressed 'deep concern' that people can be held in incommunicado detention for up to five days.

While aware of the difficulties for a government facing 'grave and frequent acts of criminal violence and terrorism', the Committee:

  • Stated that torture and ill-treatment were facilitated by the incommunicado regime.
  • Recommended that police (and Civil Guard) interrogations in general be recorded on video as a means both of protecting the detainees and officers who could be falsely accused of torture. The video recordings would have to be made available to the competent judge.
  • Recommended that medical examinations of detainees in incommunicado detention be held jointly by an (officially appointed) forensic doctor and a doctor who had the trust of the detainees.

Amnesty International itself has repeatedly called for the abrogation of Articles 520 bis and 527 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which govern the incommunicado regime. It believes that the current, restricted legal safeguards are inadequate, and has called for the right of access to a lawyer from the outset of detention and the right to talk to the lawyer in private.

On 25 February 2003 Amnesty International called for the closure of Euskaldunon Egunkaria to be investigated promptly and noted that one of those detained, Pello Zubíria, had reportedly attempted suicide while being held incommunicado.

Amnesty International's fears about the continuing existence of the incommunicado regime have been exacerbated by a draft law, produced in January 2003, reforming the Code of Criminal Procedure with regard to provisional imprisonment.

Article 509 of the draft law provides that the investigating judge or court can extend incommunicado detention beyond the current five-day maximum for some persons against whom a judge has made a provisional imprisonment order. On this basis a person could be held incommunicado - first on police or Civil Guard premises and, after five days, in prison - for a total of as much as 13 days.

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