The role of judges, lawyers, and prosecutors in preventing torture

The ICJ today highlighted the role of judges, lawyers, and prosecutors at a UN seminar on prevention of torture in police custody and pre-trial detention.

The ICJ made the interventions during the “Seminar on the implementation of effective safeguards to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment during police custody and pre-trial detention” organized by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights pursuant to a mandate from Human Rights Council resolution 31/31 (2016). A report of the seminar will be delivered and discussed at the March 2017 session of the Council.

The ICJ stated as follows in the first session:

The ICJ’s Commissioners are 60 senior judges and lawyers from all parts of the world. The ICJ works extensively with judges and absolutely agrees that their role is key to prevention of torture and ill-treatment in police custody and pre-trial detention.

Some of the key aspects of the role of judges include:

Judges should rigorously pursue all allegations. They should inquire when there are signs of abuse even if the detainee does not specifically allege abuse. They should demand that detainees be physically brought before them. Judges should be prepared to hold authorities in contempt of court when the authorities do not comply. The ICJ was very interested in what the Panelist Judge Dias Toffoli from Brazil said during the session about developments for custody hearings there, and how the judiciary can take practical systematic measures to fulfil their role even when legislators and other authorities may hesitate to act.

Judges should recognise and balance for evidentiary issues faced by detainees and their lawyers given the control authorities exercise over the place of detention

Judges should ensure that authorities respect rights of access to the outside world (including lawyers, family, friends, doctors, letters, and so on), both as safeguard but also to ensure detainees are not subjected to isolation that in its cumulative impact can itself amount to ill-treatment or even torture. The ICJ was pleased that Special Rapporteur Melzer highlighted the importance of such access.

Judges should ensure that confessions, other information and evidence obtained by torture and similar abuse is not allowed to be part of proceedings before them. The ICJ was interested in what justice Donoso from Chile said about relevant developments there.

In many places, judicial authorities are responsible for supervision of places of pre-trial detention. Where this is the case, judges should visit regularly, and at times without prior notice, such places of detention.

Judges should ensure accountability of perpetrators.

Judges should ensure rigorous constitutional review of relevant laws and practices, and maintain knowledge of and apply in practice  international law against torture and ill-treatment. Even non-legally-binding international standards (such as the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners or “Mandela Rules”, and the UN Body of Principles for the protection of all persons under any form of detention or imprisonment) should be seen by judges as a useful and persuasive source of guidance in interpreting national laws.

To effectively fulfil their role, the judiciary must enjoy all necessary guarantees of independence from other authorities and other powerful interests in society. At the same time, at the ICJ we have also more recently been concerned to ensure accountability of judges when they fail to fulfil their duties to prevent and respond to torture, or are indeed intentionally complicit in mistreatment of prisoners.

Judges acting to protect human rights of criminal detainees are often subject to public criticism, and are often unable for reasons of impartiality and dignity of the court to defend themselves. It is therefore incumbent on members of the Executive, Legislature, legal profession, and others to defend such judges, and certainly not to pile on further unjustified criticism.

Finally, the ICJ would note that recent resolutions of the Human Rights Council on the independence of judges and lawyers, and on the administration of justice, stress the role of continuing professional education of judges on human rights issues (best organised by judicial institutions themselves, but involving other actors). Continuing education on prevention of torture and ill-treatment is a key area needed by all judiciaries in all countries.”

The ICJ continued as follows in the second session:

“A common thread that has already emerged from the first two panels is the role that pressure on police to obtain confessions plays in the incidence of torture and abuse in police custody. Thank you to the Panelists for their insights on this issue.

Values and signales from superiors and political leadership, including for instance in relation to practical aspects like career progression of police officials, is very important. Having clear rules is also very important in this regard. As is the perception of police that they lack alternatives to confessions as form of proof. Training on interviewing techniques, having an adequate number of officers, access to materials like fingerprinting kits and means of assuring chain-of-custody for physical evidence, are all also important.

The Seminar has addressed judges and police already, and will discuss lawyers later; the ICJ would also like to highlight the role of prosecutors in removing incentives on police to focus on obtaining confessions by any means.

The UN Guidelines on the Role of Prosecutors (Article 16) provide that prosecutors shall refuse to use evidence that they believe to have been obtained by torture.

A similar provision is incorporated in the professional standards adopted by the International Association of Prosecutors (which have also been endorsed by the UN Crime Commission). This also is an example of how international and regional professional associations can play an important role with their members in practical measures for prevention of torture and ill-treatment in police custody and pre-trial detention.”

In the third Session, the ICJ expressed its agreement with points made by Ms Miti-Drummond, the representative of the International Bar Association Human Rights Institute regarding the role of the legal profession in the prevention of torture, particularly regarding the importance of access to and presence of a competent and independent lawyer prior to and during any interview.

The ICJ also pointed out that some States have period of delay or even preclusion of access of detainee to the lawyer of his or her choosing, for instance in counter-terrorism, national security or similar cases. Often these are cases where there is a particular risk of abuse, and also may involve delay in bringing the person before a judge. In some places the independent bar association assigns a lawyer who has immediate access, if the access to the person’s lawyer of choice is denied or delayed. The ICJ invited comments or recommendations about this practice or other means to ensure lawyers can effectively prevent torture in such circumstances.

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