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Face to face with torture

11-06-2002

On an almost daily basis an ICRC delegate somewhere in the world will be faced with the reality of torture.

Often the only hope of redress or support for victims of torture is the face-to-face and confidential discussion they have with the delegate and the knowledge that someone is recording what has happened to them and acting on their behalf. For the delegate the experience is challenging and frequently difficult. One such delegate, unnamed for obvious reasons, describes what happens.

     

 A prison director's office  

   
ICRC/C. Bozzoli  
 
The starting point is a prison director's office where sparse decorations try vainly to project individuality if not humanity. More often than not an ICRC calendar is perched on the di rector's desk. There is a little light talk and a gentle probing of how things have been since the last visit which would have been a few weeks, a few months ago. During this conversation, lists of names are exchanged to establish the changes that may have occurred among the prison population. Then it's a long walk down corridors.  
 
 

 The visit  
Metal doors clang, raucous voices shout, whistles blow, gates slide, fists bang on doors and then there is a hushed silence. The ICRC delegate is now alone beyond a terrible threshold, inside a cell where any number of shapes with eyes muffle and shuffle into a welcoming mode. The ensuing talk is subdued, slightly embarrassed.

At some point, the newcomers in the prison are pointed out. They are the shyest ones, the ones in the corner. Arrangements are made for private talks with these people who may need a little prompting from older prisoners who know that a contact with an ICRC delegate can only be for the better. One by one they come forward and expose their vulnerability. Some are amused by the novelty and giggle, others slink deeper into a formal reserve, glad to be treated seriously, individually, and most importantly, with respect in a place where the denial of all three attributes is common practice. As a first step towards a form of protection, the newcomer is asked whether he, or she, wishes to be " registered " by the ICRC. It is explained to them that this is the best guarantee against disappearance that they may ever get.

 


Interview without witness form

The ICRC delegate brings out an " Interview without witness " (IWW) form and explains its confidential nature, assuring the prisoner that nothing will be done without his or her approval. Then starts the long process that leads through meandering talk, through the gradual establishment of mutual trust, through attentive listening to the collection of what is all too frequently appalling data. The delegate scribbles it all down. As tactfully as possible, the delegate seeks additional detail, information that may lead to the places where... to the person who... The prisoner is asked whether they wish to communicate with their next of kin through a Red Cross Message that will be subjected to prison censorship, if so, an essential link is re-established. From all points of view, this is an extraordinary business: an outsider is listening to harrowing and recent tales of torture, of otherwise secret ill treatment, of unpublished disappearances of friends and family... and will walk out to act on the matter with the official blessing of those who are responsible for the prisons and the men.
 
Certainly the delegate knows that the people in the cells are not always innocent, that sometimes they are legitimately suspected of atrocious crimes. But the delegate also knows that the question of guilt or innocence is to be established through proper legal procedures. More importantly, the delegate is convinced that all men and women, no matter what crimes they may have committed, remain human beings and therefore must be treated with dignity according to established universal norms.

 Follow-up and confidentiality
Later, the delegate will share the gathered information, the completed IWW form with the ICRC group leader. Th e contents of the IWW form will be analysed; trends, for the better or the worse, and new names noted and recorded in a secure computer file. According to the information and to the manner in which it was given, the ICRC delegation will take up the matter at ever rising levels of authority if need be until change occurs. That is until the moment when subsequent IWW forms become loose empty sheets of paper, devoid of horror. A moment that is still very far away....