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Special investigation: a charter for torture

In Afghanistan, British forces hand over prisoners with only flimsy guarantees they will not be abus

What is striking about the history of torture in Afghanistan is that no matter which regime is in power - the communists, the mujahedin, the Taliban and now Hamid Karzai's western-supported government - the methods remain the same. From the 1980s to the present day, electrocution and beating have been the principal weapons used against those the state deems dangerous or undesirable.

A former jihadi recently told the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism about the similarity in treatment between his arrests in the 1980s and in late January 2009. "In Afghan­istan, some types of torture are common and these are beating and electric shocks, given twice a day," he said. "I was tortured at nine in the morning and again from two to three o'clock in the afternoon.

“They kept me in a toilet, kept me thirsty and hungry, and used to hang me upside down for 20 to 30 minutes at a time. I was frequently threatened with death. I was not allowed to meet my family during either imprisonment."

He was released after 25 days, once the elders of his tribe had paid the equivalent of £2,000 in Pakistani rupees.

In another case we investigated, a father was forced to listen to the torture of his 20-year-old son and 16-year-old nephew. The family's ordeal began at 3am one day in early March this year, after a team of Afghan and foreign intelligence operatives broke down the door to his home in a village in eastern Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan. They took Shamsuddin (not his real name) and his son and nephew, put black hoods on their heads and accused them of being insurgents. Shamsuddin told us that his brother, the father of his nephew, had been killed by a Taliban bomb just eight months earlier. He said it was "impossible" to have the idea that they could be Taliban fighters.

The three men were taken to the area of Kabul where most foreign agencies and missions are sited, including the US embassy, the centre for Nato forces and CIA headquarters.

He described being handcuffed, hooded and beaten over several days, but said that for him this was not really torture. The unbearable thing was to hear the agony of his son.

“There was a window like a hole in the door. I was trying to see what was happening to my son. You know a parent always longs to know what is happening to his child. I could hear the sound of the instrument beating my son. I felt his pain as if it was my own, and I heard my own son shouting and screaming.

“I wasn't normal. Hearing your son shout and scream and call on God. From the sound of the instrument they used to beat him, it wasn't wood or a fist, but sounded like a length of rubber or electric cable. It lasted for an hour each time. They were asking questions, but I couldn't hear what they were asking. I could just hear the sound of him screaming and the sound of rubber or a cable whipping him."

Shamsuddin has since been released, but his son has not. His fate is unknown.

What makes many of the reported cases of torture in Afghanistan so disturbing is not just that the western invasion was supposed to end such practices, but that the Allied forces have, in effect, been colluding in such treatment.

Last year, the high court in London heard testimony from ten men accused of insurgency, all of whom had been beaten by members of the Afghan authorities after being surrendered to them by British or American forces between 2007 and 2010. Their stories make grim reading: "Prisoner X said that metal clamps had been attached to parts of his body. He gestured to his forearms, upper body and chest . . . he had been electrocuted six times. He said that he had been beaten with an electric cable, about a metre long and one inch thick. He was beaten by the commander, a small fat man. He still had marks on his back."

It is also alleged that Prisoner X was raped by a senior Afghan officer at the detention facility in Lashkar Gah. Other stories heard in court included those of Prisoner A, who spoke of being hung from the ceiling and beaten, and Prisoner D, who was electrocuted while blindfolded. Prisoner E told the court that "every night of the 20 days of investigation at Lashkar Gah he had been beaten".

Counsel for the UK Ministry of Defence (the period of investigation covers the tenures of John Hutton, Bob Ainsworth and Liam Fox) has admitted that some of these allegations are "credible" - and even the high court judgment warned that they should not be dismissed.

And yet, a joint investigation by the New Statesman and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism shows that the world's most powerful military nations have responded not by trying to right these wrongs, but by attempting to sweep away the fundamental provisions of the Geneva Conventions.

The problem is simple, yet horrifying. British troops regularly hand over suspected insurgents to the Afghan authorities, even though torture and abuse are rife in Afghanistan's detention facilities. They do this, too, knowing that it is a breach of international law to transfer detainees to the custody of another state where they may face a risk of torture. This is enshrined in the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the Convention Against Torture of 1984, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966, and the European Convention on Human Rights (1950).

“The prohibition to transfer a person to a jurisdiction where he or she may be tortured is absolute in international law," says Dr Juan Méndez, United Nations special rapporteur on torture. "The operative part of this prohibition is not the torture itself, but the very risk of torture." And although there has been an official response to allegations of this sort, you could be forgiven for not having heard of it. Called the Copenhagen Process, it has received little publicity. Its meetings are closed. Its full membership is secret. Human rights groups such as Amnesty and other interested non-governmental organisations have been excluded.

What we do know is that it is led by the Danish government and it involves 25 nations (including the US and UK), as well as Nato, the EU, the African Union and the UN. Since 2007, these players have been pushing to establish a common framework for detainee transfers in Iraq and Afghanistan. In grim committee-speak, it aims to produce an "outcome document", which it hopes will receive approval from the UN and individual countries.

The starting point for those around the Copenhagen table is that, while the principles of humanitarian and human rights conventions may be set in stone, 20th-century law is out of kilter with 21st-century conflict. Military nations need a get-out clause from the Geneva Conventions.

Thomas Winkler of Denmark's ministry of foreign affairs is leading the charge. "The dil­emma is . . . [you] have a huge body of law but, when you have to apply the law in these types of conflict or operations, we have met a number of challenges . . . that you detain somebody and that you believe that the individual either is a security threat or a criminal, how do you then deal with it?" he told the Bureau.

Winkler maintains that the Copenhagen Process meetings have been "closed" to encourage openness by the states and organisations involved. He says that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is now attending meetings, and NGOs will be invited to contribute later this year, once the final draft outcome document has been drawn up. The ICRC distances itself from this assertion. A spokesperson says it was invited to participate in the process, but purely as an observer.

The present military rules in Afghanistan say that Nato-led forces have to hand over anyone they capture to the Afghan authorities within 96 hours. So far, the forces have attempted to comply with their human rights obligations by obtaining written assurances from the Afghan government, known as memorandums of understanding, or MOUs. The aim of the Copenhagen Process is to codify these assurances into international law.

As the high court testimony from the ten detainees shows, it appears that these MOUs are not always successful in protecting detainees from torture. Prisoner A told of multiple night-time beatings in an underground cell. Prisoner C recounted being hung from a ceiling for three days and nights. A common theme is the men's inability to identify their abusers - the beatings often took place under cover of darkness, or with the men blindfolded - but in those cases where identifications were made, senior officials were implicated.

“The use of memorandums of understanding is among the worst practices that states are currently engaging in," says Matt Pollard, a senior legal adviser at Amnesty International. "In effect, it is resulting in states bypassing their obligations not to transfer people to risk of torture. Basically states say: 'Yes - I'm not supposed to transfer a person to you if you're going to torture them - so please just promise me you won't torture them.' We've said categorically that that type of practice is actually undermining the prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment and other human rights obligations. It's one of the worst practices in terms of its effect on the system of human rights protection as a whole at the moment."

Juan Méndez agrees. "Diplomatic assurances do not relieve the sending countries of their state responsibility for having committed a serious breach of an international obligation." He argues that changes to the way MOUs are used "are unnecessary if the receiving country is not a torturing state and are utterly meaningless if the receiving country is known to engage in a pattern and practice of torture".

Then Méndez goes further, and makes a statement that is remarkably forthright for someone in his position. "In the course of the so-called 'global war on terror', countries have been transferring prisoners not despite the risk of torture, but precisely to facilitate torture - and to obtain the dubious intelligence thus gathered. I fear that an agreed-upon regulation of these transfers will be seen by some [prisoner-] sending countries as a way of legitimising what is clearly wrongful conduct on their part. If so, the agreement will not succeed in curbing torture and may well provide a veneer of legitimacy to it."

It's a view echoed by Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, who says that the detainees' well-being is put second to western armies' convenience. "The US, UK and others with troops in Afghanistan want to be able to capture real or alleged insurgents and interrogate them," he says, "but they do not want to build or run detention centres in Afghanistan. So they do the expedient thing and hand them over to the Afghans. For the most part, they have no idea what happens next.

“It's a hear-no-evil, see-no-evil policy of wilful blindness to the risks to detainees. And, to make matters worse, we know that many people detained in Afghanistan turn out to be completely innocent."

The organisation to which detainees are handed over is the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan's external and domestic intelligence agency. Its track record is deplorable and the evidence of torture at its detention facilities is overwhelming. Since 2005, there has been a raft of reports detailing how torture is rife in it and other state institutions.

In 2007, the UN high commissioner for human rights reported that the NDS's use of torture and other forms of ill-treatment was frequent. Every year since then the same concerns have been reiterated.

In 2009, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reported that "torture was commonplace among the majority of law-enforcement institutions". It identified 398 victims and detailed the methods of torture: sexual abuse; branding with iron bars; use of tools, a lawnmower, tyre rods, staplers; flogging with electric, iron and plastic cables on the back, waist, feet, head, face and other body parts; beating with rods while blindfolded with hands and feet tied; use of electric shocks; victims continuously chained and shackled. The report concluded that no one had been prosecuted for any of these cases.

Even the US state department country report on Afghanistan published in 2010 referred to methods of torture and abuse. These included, but were not limited to, "beating by stick, scorching bar, or iron bar; flogging by cable; battering by rod; electric shock; deprivation of sleep, water and food; abusive language; sexual humiliation; and rape". Against this backdrop, a memorandum of understanding seems a flimsy safeguard indeed.

In 2009, the Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin created a storm when he revealed that, despite an MOU, Canada did not monitor detainee conditions in Afghanistan, and that detainees transferred by the Canadians to Afghan prisons were probably tortured. "According to our information, the likelihood is that all the Afghans we handed over were tortured," Colvin said. "For interrogators in Kandahar, it was a standard operating procedure."

He said his reports were ignored and eventually senior officials told him to stop putting his concerns in writing. Denmark's Winkler accepts that MOUs are not sufficient in themselves. Central to their success, he explains, is "aggressive monitoring": to try to ensure that the host nation - through the Afghan authorities - sticks to its part of the bargain. "We need the monitoring of not just the individuals transferred but also supervision and the co-operation at a general level with the receiving state in order to ensure that the facilities are there," Winkler told the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. "If the receiving state or entity does not fulfil the obligations as part of the MOU, then you cannot transfer."

This is where the central thesis of the use of MOUs by the Copenhagen Process starts to unravel. The UK - which is held up as an example of best practice - signed a bilateral MOU with the Afghan defence ministry in April 2006. Its intentions are laudable: "Ensure that participants will observe the basic principles of international human rights law such as the right to life and the prohibition on torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment pertaining to the treatment and transfer of persons by the UK [armed forces] to Afghan authorities and their treatment."

However, a high court case brought last year by the peace activist Maya Evans exposed the fundamental failings of the agreement. At the time of the hearing, 418 UK detainees had been handed over to the NDS (the number is now more than 600). The main detention facilities are NDS Kabul, known as "Department 17", NDS Kandahar and NDS Lashkar Gah.

The judgment pointed out that "written assurances in themselves do not take matters very far . . . actions speak louder than words". It continued: "UK officials in Kabul reported that despite advice from London, the MOU was meaningless locally. The NDS did not recognise the authority of the Afghan minister of defence to promise anything on behalf of the NDS."

It continues that, because of deficiencies in the monitoring system, "the possibility of other cases of abuse which the monitoring system has failed to identify cannot be dismissed". However, the British judges refused to rule that the transfer of detainees was illegal. Transfers to NDS Kandahar and NDS Lashkar Gah could continue, "provided that existing safeguards are strengthened by observance of specified conditions".

That seems unlikely to happen: the Afghan­istan Independent Human Rights Commission has repeatedly been denied proper access to NDS facilities. During one visit in 2007, detainees were hidden on a roof.

The judgment also described the position at NDS Kabul as "particularly troubling". As it stated: "Little occurred by way of UK visits before the NDS refused all access to the facility in late 2008." Access to NDS Kandahar was limited. At NDS Lashkar Gah, visits were cancelled for security reasons and the character of visits was described as falling "well short of best practice"; guards were present during the interviews, and it was only possible to see detainees in groups with the guards still in earshot.

It was only through the high court hearings that the allegations of torture and abuse came to public attention in the UK. If those in charge of the Copenhagen Process have their way, the accusations are unlikely to surface again.

In the meantime, however, British troops continue to hand over detainees to their Afghan counterparts. The UK Ministry of Defence argues that, with better supervision, the situation has improved, but confirms that accounts of abuse continue to surface.

“We take all allegations of abuse seriously and consider these in all future transfer decisions," an MoD spokesman says. "We can confirm that there [has] been a very small number of allegations received since the judgment was handed down, but cannot give full details as they can only be passed on with the permission of the detainee and may be subject to an ongoing investigation, either by UK or Afghan authorities. Where permission is given by the detainee, an allegation will be passed to the Afghan authorities for further investigation."

As Nato-led forces plan to pull out from Afghanistan, the focus on how western armies can hand over detainees without breaching international law has intensified. Before the "war on terror" the west made great play of trying to engage with torturing regimes in an effort to get them to change their ways. Now, it stands accused of complicity, the result of a cynical attempt to erode the basic principles of the Geneva Conventions, international human rights and humanitarian law.

Angus Stickler is chief reporter at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a not-for-profit organisation based at City University London

Kate Clark is a senior analyst with the Afghanistan Analysts Network

This feature article was produced in association with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism

This article first appeared in the 29 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Gold

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.