Torture and the Arab system, old and new

The Arab awakening of 2011 raises hope of an end to the torture and other human-rights violations that have long been endemic in Arab states. But it will be a tough legacy to overcome, says Vicken Cheterian.

Vicken Cheterian
23 November 2011

Torture was at the heart of the old Arab political system. It was more than a means to extort confessions out of dissident political activists; it was a means to keep the population away from politics (rather as, in the other direction, corruption was the glue holding together the ruling caste). Even the names of incarceration centres - Abu Salim in Libya, Mezze and later Adra or Tadmor in Syria, Burj el-Rumi in Tunisia, Abu Zaabal in Egypt, or Abu Ghraib under Ba'athist Iraq (and United States occupation) - still make millions of people inwardly shiver.

The practice of torture became more widespread as the Arab political system moved in the 1980s and 1990s from relatively enlighted authoritarianism to straightforwardly corrupt dictatorship. "In Tunisia before [Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali torture was practised during interrogation to get confessions, but under him it became widespread even in prisons, after finishing interrogation, as a way to spread fear", the Tunisian human-rights activist Abdlewahab Hani tells me.

Now, in the wake of the Arab spring, the question of whether torture will cease to be an integral part of the way Arab regimes operate is an acute one. The way the process was triggered does give hope that human-rights issues - and especially torture and degrading treatment of citizens - will remain high on the new Arab political agenda.

Mohammad Bouazizi's self-immolation in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid in December 2010 in protest against police harassment sparked the avalanche; demonstrations against the death by torture of the bright young Khaled Said in a police station in Alexandria, Egypt, continued it; gatherings in Deraa, Syria, were provoked by the security services' arrest and beating of schoolchildren.

The legacy

"The Arab spring is a human-rights revolution", says Juan Mendez, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture. Mendez - who took up his current post in November 2010 - knows the topic well, for in his native Argentina he worked as a lawyer defending political dissidents during the country's brutal military dictatorship (1976-83). Mendez himself was arrested and held for eighteen months before being deported. He went on to practice in the US by defending immigrant workers, later working as a university professor.

Mendez speaks of "a long night of political oppression in the Arab world, where torture was used as a means to subdue political opposition". For Mendez, the Arab spring is a revolt of people who "went out to the streets demanding openness and freedom of speech, identifying the old regimes with repression and the practice of torture."Even a short while ago, Arab human-rights activists were a small and isolated group, swimming against the current. "Who among us had even heard about the massacre at Abu Salim prison?", asks Mirvet Rishmawi, an activist from Palestine. For decades, he says, Arab human-rights groups debated what positions to adopt on political issues; "now, human-rights activists in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere have become part of the revolution".

Juan Mendez visited Tunisia on his first fact-finding mission in mid-May 2011 to assess whether and how the practices of torture are indeed changing. He saw both positive steps and continued dangers. "The government that emerged out of the Tunisian revolution made a clear break with the past, declaring an end to the practice of torture." Yet in the first five months of the year "there were numerous protests, during which the police used extensive force. We have collected information about people who were brutalised by police after detention." He adds: "It is not enough to declare that torture is stopped; [the authorities] should investigate every case of torture and put an end to such practices."

The Tunisian government has adopted the Optional Protocol of the Convention Against Torture (Opcat), an additional mechanism to prevent torture by enabling independent inspection (both national and international) of places of detention; and it has signed the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which makes Tunisia, after Jordan, the second Arab country to adhere to the ICC. Moreover, the political class shows a willingness to reform institutions and adopt universal human-rights standards. All these are moves in the right direction.

But is Tunisia's path the new norm, or the exception? In Egypt, the public clearly wanted to reform the police in the early few months following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. But, says Kareem Medhat Ennarah, the spread of insecurity following the revolution, which human-rights activists suspect has been tolerated by the new-old authorities, encourages demands for more visible policing in the streets and tends to drain energy from the reform issue.

This situation is not sustainable, Ennarah adds, in a situation where there are daily confrontations between police and civilians, where brutal police are confronted by mobs that attack and burn their cars and offices. In the long run the only way is to reform the police and its practices, concludes Ennarah.

Esther Schaufelberger is the middle east andf north Africa specialist at the Association for the Prevention of Torture in Geneva. "Transparency is a key element in stopping practices of torture", she says. "Authorities in the region had the reflex to say ‘this is our sovereignty’ and refuse to open their prisons to international visits. But this is changing now; an increasing number of states do see the benefit of transparency."

The Lebanese parliamentarian Ghassan Moukheiber, who is engaged in the fight against torture in Lebanon and the region, says that the general mood at the moment is for human rights. He cites Lebanon's recent ratification of Opcat, though he doubts that even half of his parliamentary colleagues read the text of the document before voting for it. This reflects a moment where possibilities are opened to pass positive measures, yet where the serious challenge of finding the political will to translate the law into institutional forms that guarantee its effectiveness remains.

The challenge

The Arab spring has had a dual aspect from the start: it inspired peaceful revolutions but was also met with violent repression that in some cases mutated into near or (in Libya) actual civil war. In Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen, the process of change has meant more cases of torture and massive human-rights violations.

Nadim Houry works for Human Rights Watch, which has published a report on torture in Syria. I asked him whether the videos of tortured dissidents in Syria are taken by police officers, as a way of instilling fear in the public. Houry is doubtful; rather, he says "it is the opposition which is filming victims of torture and posting it on YouTube to declare 'see - these are the reforms of Bashar [al-Assad]." Houry notes "the deep sense of injustice and desire for punishment" in Syria, and concludes: "torture is not working anymore".

But when regime change happens after months of repression and armed opposition, will the new political dispensation be defined by revenge or the imposition of a rule of law? Libya is clearly a test-case here. Juan Mendez sees "worrying events, not just the killing of Gaddafi but also of other regime supporters who were found killed after being arrested."

Mendez also cautions that democratisation does not translate automatically into respect for human rights, including the disapearance of torture. "The Latin American experience shows that the elimination of torture is not easy. There is a tendency to come back to torture in the fight against crime, drugs and for national security." There has been a similar trend in western countries in the post-2001 period where the "war of terror" or the fight against illegal migration has legitimised acceptance of torture and degrading treatment.

There is a media dimension here, says Mendez. "The big challenge that democracies have is that press reporting of crime, especially via sensational television reports, creates a public mood that supports crime-fighting even at the price of human-rights violations." Yet he adds, even the sensational use of media freedoms "is progress compared to torture taking place in secret."

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