UK/Ireland: Hooded men torture ruling is 'very disappointing', says Amnesty

Amnesty International is disappointed at the European Court of Human Rights’ ruling refusing to revise its 1978 conclusion that the treatment to which the United Kingdom subjected the 14 ‘hooded men’ in Northern Ireland did not amount to torture. It is important to note that today’s Court ruling is not a statement that the ‘five techniques’ do not constitute torture as it is legally defined today.

In its 1978 landmark Ireland v UK judgement, in a case taken against the UK by the Irish Government, the Court had found that the UK violated the men’s rights to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment, but that the treatment the men suffered did not amount to torture.

Today, the Court found that the information known to the UK Government at the time about the long-term effects of the ill-treatment, which the Irish Government brought to Court’s attention in this revision request, would not have decisively impacted on the Court back in 1978. 

Therefore, in the Court’s words today, “where doubts remain as to whether or not a new fact actually did have a decisive influence on the original judgment, legal certainty must prevail and the final judgment must stand”. This is a disappointing outcome on a technical legal point, but is not a finding that the ‘five techniques’ fall short of torture by today’s standards. Indeed, the Court expressly refers to later case law showing how its torture interpretation expanded since this 1978 judgment, including by assessing its long-term effects on victims.

Nevertheless, it is disappointing that the Court chose a procedural route to avoid addressing substantively the newly-revealed facts, in particular clear evidence of the severe long-term effects that “deep interrogation” had on its victims. Interrogation techniques causing such suffering can only be legally described in one word - torture.

The detained men were interned in 1971, and subjected to sustained interrogation by the British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary, involving the ‘five techniques’ of hooding, stress positions, white noise, sleep deprivation, and deprivation of food and water. These were combined with physical assaults and death threats, which the Court did not consider in its 1978 ruling.

In 2014, the Irish Government requested the Court revise that judgement to a finding of torture based on new information revealed in an RTÉ documentary called The Torture Files. The documentary showed that, contrary to what the UK Government had told the Court, it had evidence of the physical and psychological suffering these ‘techniques’ inflicted, and that they had been sanctioned by the highest levels of Government.

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty’s Northern Ireland campaigns manager, said:

“This is a very disappointing outcome, for the men and their families. We believe the Court has missed a vital opportunity to put right a historic wrong. Instead, it relied largely on procedural arguments to avoid substantively revisiting its 1978 ruling.

“Forty years ago, the UK succeeded in persuading the Court to absolve it of the ‘special stigma’ of a finding of torture. It did this by deliberately withholding from the Court evidence it had about the severe physical and psychological suffering that these ‘techniques’ inflicted. It also claimed this was the unsanctioned behaviour of local military and police.

“When Amnesty visited the detainees in 1971, we found clear evidence of torture. Our findings have not changed in the years that have passed.

“What has been revealed in the files withheld by the UK Government cannot be denied. These men were tortured, and with approval at the highest levels of Government. The record of what these men endured in those interrogation rooms 47 years ago, and the devastating impact on them afterwards, still stands.

“The ‘hooded men’ have been denied justice for too long. The UK Government must now urgently conduct an independent and effective investigation into what happened, and prosecute any state agents involved in sanctioning or carrying out these violations at the time.

“This case underscores the need for a comprehensive means of dealing with historic human rights violations and abuses in Northern Ireland.”

Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty Ireland, said:

“This ruling is disappointing, but needs to be seen for what it is. It is not saying the ‘five techniques’ are not torture. We are quite confident what was done to these men would be deemed as torture by the Court in today’s terms if this case were heard afresh. This was a revision request judgment though, and not a new hearing. The Court has made a narrow technical legal point - that the long-term effects of the techniques would not have impacted on the 1978 judgment. It is very important that this be understood.

“In recent decades, especially in the counter-terrorism context, we have seen states undermine and chip away at the unconditional prohibition on torture. The European Court has taken a positive stand against torture in that period. As the Court noted today, it very quickly expanded its interpretation of torture after the 1978 Ireland v UK case.

“This regrettable judgement must not be misrepresented or misinterpreted as encouraging views of torture as limited to extreme physical measures, ignoring the severe and long-lasting suffering that more ‘subtle’ torture measures can cause. States using the sort of interrogation methods like these ‘techniques’ must not be allowed to take comfort from today’s ruling.

“We commend the Irish Government for trying to help these men, and the families of the men who have since died, to seek to have their rights to truth and justice vindicated. In 1971, Ireland took a brave, unprecedented step when bringing the case against the UK.

“In taking this case, and then in seeking this revision, Ireland maintained this was torture. So did the men, their lawyers, and Amnesty International. This is what we have asserted ever since, and assert again today. This judgement is a disappointment. However, we will continue to stand strong in defence of the universal and unconditional prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment.”

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