|By Nicole Pope
Ferhat is a broken man. Short and squat, with jet black hair and a bushy mustache, he looks healthy and strong as a bull, yet the life has gone out of his dark eyes.
This man in his thirties cannot sleep at night because he is afraid of the dark. He loses his temper when his four young children play loudly, because their screams remind him of the nightly cries he heard from his cell. He speaks in a monotone voice, his rasping accent revealing his Kurdish origins. At times overcome by emotion, he just stops, stares at his shoes, and shakes his head to push back the images that still haunt him, years after he was tortured in an interrogation center in Istanbul.
Like many others from Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast, Ferhat (not his real name) was caught up in the conflict that tore his region between 1984 and 1999. Over thirty-five thousand people died and hundreds of thousands of villagers, Ferhat and his family among them, were forced to leave their homes when they were burned down by the army in an attempt to deny supplies and logistical support to the guerrillas living in remote mountainous areas.
Ferhat was not a fighter, but he was a member of a legal pro-Kurdish party that was viewed with great suspicion by the Turkish authorities and was later closed down by the courts. Arrested on two occasions in 1993 and in 1994, Ferhat was charged with “aiding and abetting an illegal organization,” but refused to confess to a crime he says he did not commit, despite extensive physical and mental pressure. At the end of his first trial, he was acquitted. There was no evidence against him other than a denunciation obtained from another prisoner under similar circumstances.
Ferhat’s case took place in the context of what was considered an internal conflict, even if the Turkish Army often crossed the border into northern Iraq in pursuit of Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants. While a State is entitled to suppress an insurrection as well as detain and prosecute rebels, torture is universally prohibited. “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture,” states the 1984 Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
The Convention, to which Turkey is a party, defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person,” when the agent responsible is “a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.” The treaty lists reasons for inflicting pain or suffering that are associated with torture: obtaining from the detainee or a third person information or a confession; punishing him for an act that he or a third person has committed; intimidating or coercing him or someone else; or for reasons based on discrimination. Pain and suffering arising only from “lawful sanctions” is not prohibited under the Convention.
In addition, torture during armed conflict is specifically prohibited by international humanitarian law, whether the conflict is international or internal, and no matter whether the victims are soldiers who have laid down their arms, civilians, or rebels. The prohibition exists in customary law and in treaties. The Geneva Conventions of 1949 include torture of protected persons (sick or wounded members of the armed forces, prisoners of war, or civilians in the hands of the enemy) among the grave breaches which States are obliged to enforce through criminal prosecution. The first Additional Protocol prohibits torture as well as humiliating and degrading treatment of any detainee, as does Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions in non-international conflicts.
The International Committee of the Red Cross study of customary international humanitarian law says that the use of “torture, cruel or inhuman treatment and outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment” against any person is forbidden in all armed conflicts.
In all these cases, the law makes a distinction between torture, which is often used to force information out of a suspect, and inhumane treatment, which attacks a person’s dignity, but the line between the two is often blurred. Indeed, revenge and hatred, as much as the need to obtain a confession, often drive the torturers to inflict the suffering. Torture is used not just to hurt physically, but also to humiliate the victim, which is why prisoners are often left naked during torture sessions, and rape or pain inflicted on the genitals are among the most commonly used forms of torture.
Since the arrest in 1999 of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, the conflict has abated and armed clashes are rarer in Turkey’s southeast. The Turkish government, determined to join the European Union, has introduced democratic reforms and improved its human rights record. Despite a government pledge to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy on torture, human rights groups say violations still occur but they are no longer systematic and appear to be on the decrease.
However, abuse of prisoners remains widespread in many countries. Moreover, there are disturbing signs that after September 11, 2001, torture, once considered abhorrent by Western public opinion and governments, is viewed by some as a necessary evil in the fight against terrorism.
Graphic photographs of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq being humiliated, threatened with dogs and forced to pose naked in sexually explicit positions, caused a scandal in early 2004, and led to further revelations of ill treatment of prisoners elsewhere in U.S. custody. According to press reports, some detainees held by the CIA have been subjected to waterboarding, in which the victim is strapped down and water is poured over his face to induce the feeling of drowning—a practice that the United States has condemned as torture in the past when it was used by other countries.
In September 2006, the U.S. Defense Department issued a new interrogation field manual prohibiting the use of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment against any detainee held by the American armed forces. “Use of torture is not only illegal but also it is a poor technique that yields unreliable results,” the manual states.
The days and nights Ferhat spent in total darkness behind a blindfold, the guards’ taunts and insults, the death threats and the click of a pistol while he was waiting for an execution that never came were, according to him, even worse than the physical pain caused by the arm clamps that kept him hanging painfully for hours while electric cables were attached to his toes and genitals, and cigarettes burnt round scars in his forearms.
The Abu Ghraib prisoners piled up naked in human pyramids may not have physical scars to display but, as was the case for Ferhat, the abuse they suffered is likely to leave indelible marks on their psyche.