State immunity upheld against human rights challenges in Strasbourg

Saudi_mapJones and Others v. the United Kingdom (application nos. 34356/06 and 40528/06) – read judgement

The Strasbourg Court has ruled that the inability of four men to bring torture compensation claims against Saudi Arabia in UK courts did not breach the Convention.  The Court held that a “grant of immunity to the state officials in the present case reflected generally recognised rules of public international law”  and that there had been no violation of  Article 6 (right of access to court).

The claimants argued that there there was emerging support for a special exception to this immunity in cases concerning civil claims for torture lodged against foreign State officials. But the Court took the view that the bulk of the authority was to the effect that the State’s right to immunity may not be circumvented by suing its servants or agents instead. The fact that conduct was unlawful or objectionable was not, of itself, a ground for refusing immunity. Continue reading

South African Supreme Court orders police to investigate Zimbabwe torture allegations

subvertingjusticeNational Commissioner of the South African Police Service v Southern African Human Rights Litigation Centre (485/2012) [2013] ZASCA 168 (27 November 2013) – read judgment.

In what appears to be the first case where the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) has had to consider the investigation of crimes committed extraterritorially, the Court has made it clear that the perpetrators of systematic torture – as was alleged in this case – can be held accountable in South Africa regardless of where the offending acts took place.

It had been alleged that Zimbabwean officials had on a widespread scale tortured opponents of the ruling party. The Gauteng high court had ordered the SAPS to initiate an investigation under the Implementation of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court Act 27 of 2002 (the ICC Act) into the alleged offences (see my previous post on that ruling).   Continue reading

South African police force should not shrink from investigating Zimbabwe torture allegations

South African Litigation Centre and Zimbabwe Exiles Forum v. National Director of Public Prosecutions and other governmental units – read judgment 

South Africa’s North Gauteng High Court has just ruled that South African prosecutors and police illegally refused to proceed with an investigation of systematic torture in Zimbabwe.

South Africa, like many countries, has adopted the international crime prosecution Treaty (“the Rome Statute”). This means that under ordinary domestic law  (the ICC Act)  the South African investigative authorities have the power to prosecute anyone who has committed torture, or a crime against humanity anywhere in the world, if the perpetrator is in the country (at any time when investigation is contemplated). Jurisdiction is also vested irrespective of the perpetrator’s whereabouts if the victim is a South African citizen.

Of course this burden of responsibility teems with diplomatic difficulties, but generally it has been discharged with the convenient prosecutions of has-beens like Charles Taylor and  Slobodan Milošević.

As Naomi Roht-Arriaza points out in her fascinating post on the subject, this particular case of South Africa v Zimbabwe illustrates the strain put on governments by the principle of  complementarity under the 1998 Rome Statute, which puts pressure on implicated states to investigate these major crimes on their threshold, too close to home. It should come as no surprise that South African prosecutors are reluctant to investigate allegations of torture committed in Zimbabwe -

One of the critiques of transnational prosecutions based on universal jurisdiction is that they are a new brand of neo-colonialism, with former colonial powers seeking to bring into court disgraced leaders of their former colonies.

Now the tables are turning, and this universal jurisdiction is not being universally welcomed.

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When does an expert report constitute “independent evidence” of torture?

R (on the application of AM) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2012] EWCA Civ 521 – Read judgment

Whether expert evidence relied upon by an asylum seeker amounted to “independent evidence” of torture was the key issue before the Court of Appeal in this case . The issue arose in the context of AM’s claim against the Home Office for wrongful imprisonment contrary to the UK Border Agency’s  Enforcement Instructions and Guidance. The Guidance, which contains the policy of the Agency on detentions (amongst other things), says that where there is “independent evidence” that a person has been tortured, that person is suitable for detention only in “very exceptional circumstances”.

AM, an Angolan national, was detained pending removal following an unsuccessful appeal from the refusal of her asylum claim, the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal having found her to have “no credibility whatsoever” and rejected her evidence that she had been raped and tortured. She later launched a fresh asylum claim on the basis of new evidence, in the form of an expert report by a wound and scar specialist, Ms Kralj, which linked the various scars on her body to torture. The claim was refused again but AM won her appeal. The Tribunal this time found that she had been raped and tortured as she had claimed, causing the scars on her body.

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Secrecy for torture evidence – analysis

W (Algeria) (FC) and BB (Algeria) (FC) and others v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2012] UKSC 8 – read judgment

As we reported in our summary of the decision earlier, the Supreme Court has confirmed that the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) has the power to order that certain witness evidence may be produced in conditions of absolute and irreversible secrecy.

A brief recapitulation: the appellants were resisting return to Algeria, a a country where torture has been systematically practised by the relevant authorities. The respondent secretary of state had obtained assurances from the Algerian Government that the appellants’ rights would be respected upon return, but, in appeals to the Commission, the appellants wished to adduce evidence from witnesses with inside knowledge of the position in Algeria that those assertions would not be honoured, and that torture and ill-treatment of the returnees was likely. The witnesses were not prepared to give evidence in the appeals unless their identity and evidence would remain forever confidential to the Commission and the parties to the appeal. The Court of Appeal held that despite the breadth of the Commission’s powers under Rule 39(1) of the SIAC (Procedure) Rules 2003, it was not open to it to give such guarantees. The Supreme Court overturned that ruling, declaring that  SIAC could give an absolute and irrevocable guarantee of total confidentiality to a witness who was prepared to testify that the deportee was likely to be subjected to torture or ill-treatment upon return despite contrary assurances from the authorities in the country of return.

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UK would have been obliged to use torture evidence to find Bin Laden

The New York Times reports that after years of promising leads gone cold, the final piece of evidence which led to Osama Bin Laden was found by interrogating detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Given the rough interrogation techniques which were in use at the prison camp, the killing has reopened the debate over torture, and whether it is ever justified. 

Blogger David Allen Green, amongst others, asks whether the Bin Laden scenario may amount to an exception to the “otherwise absolute rule” that torture is wrong. I would like to pose a slightly different question: on the basis of current UK law, would it have been lawful for UK authorities to use information obtained under torture to capture or kill a known terrorist?

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“Torture is wrong”: Discuss

Ahmed & Anor v R [2011] EWCA Crim 184 (25 February 2011) – Read judgment

“Torture is wrong”. The court of appeal made this simple and it would be hoped obvious statement in the appeal of two men convicted of terrorism and being active members of Al Qaeda. But, it turns out, the position on torture is not as clear as those three simple words.

Rangzieb Ahmed and Habib Ahmed were British citizens, born in Lancashire. They were jailed in 2008 for being members of Al Qeaeda and planning mass murder. During the trial, Rangzieb applied to the judge to stop the prosecution, on the basis that it would be an abuse of process to try him. He claimed that he was tortured whilst he was in custody in Pakistan. He said that amongst other things, he had been beaten and had his fingernails removed. He also claimed that British officers questioned him on one day of his captivity.

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