The law is clear: torture is prohibited under any circumstances. Whoever commits, orders or approves acts of torture should be prosecuted. This is set out in the UN Convention against Torture which has been ratified by 146 states.
Failure to punish and acknowledge torture adds to the trauma of survivors and their families; individual as well as collective traumas persist. The cycle of torture, impunity and further injustice cannot be broken without addressing these crimes, including through the law. This is why – where torture is used as part of a policy – it is important to hold not only low-ranking perpetrators of torture accountable but also their superiors as well as political and military decision makers – including those from politically and economically powerful states.
In the fight against torture, ECCHR works with survivors and partner organizations to pursue a variety of legal avenues. In some cases, it might be appropriate to bring a case to the International Criminal Court, as with the torture and mistreatment of detainees by British forces in Iraq. ECCHR also takes cases based on the principle of universal jurisdiction in third states like Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Sweden, filing complaints against those responsible for the US torture program in the so-called "war on terror," against the Bahraini Attorney General, and against senior officials within the Syrian intelligence services.
Crimes against humanity
In June 2020, the German police arrested Alaa M, who has since been held in detention awaiting trial. The reason: strong suspicion of complicity in crimes against humanity committed by the Syrian regime since 2011. Approximately one year after his arrest, the Federal Prosecutor’s Office announced that it had filed charges against M, a former Syrian doctor who allegedly tortured, killed and sexually abused people in military hospitals.
Chechnya, an autonomous republic in Russia, and a black hole in the Council of Europe’s human rights protection system: civil society has been the target of severe human rights violations for years. Having resumed office as head of the Chechen Republic in 2007, Ramzan Kadyrov and his close allies have repeatedly deployed military and police forces to terrorize the civilian population in order to “ensure political stability.”
In November 2017, ECCHR and nine Syrian women and men filed a criminal complaint concerning crimes against humanity and war crimes with the German Federal Public Prosecutor. The complaint is directed against ten high-ranking officials of the National Security Office and Air Force Intelligence, among them Jamil Hassan, its former head.
After more than six years, the International Criminal Court closed its preliminary examination of war crimes by UK forces in Iraq. The decision from December 2020 reveals systematic failures of international justice and proves, once again, that powerful actors can get away with torture.
Colonia Dignidad, founded by a German named Paul Schäfer in 1961, was a fortress-like German settlement in central Chile where grave human rights violations were committed over several decades. The former doctor of the Colonia Dignidad, Hartmut Hopp, should face prison in Germany.
After learning that Mourad Benchellali and Nizar Sassi were being detained by the US at Guantánamo detention center, their families filed a criminal complaint before French courts asking authorities to investigate torture, ill-treatment and arbitrary detention. That was in November 2002. Since then, the French judiciary has been conducting investigations into the US torture program and the high-ranking officials responsible for it.
In order to end impunity for state torture in Syria, five Syrian torture survivors filed a criminal complaint in November 2019 in Norway. The complaint is the next step in a series of criminal complaints against 17 high-ranking officials of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government that have been submitted in Germany, Austria and Sweden.
Between 2004 and 2007, three complaints were filed in Germany and in France against members of the US Government, including former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and members of the military forces in connection with war crimes, torture and other criminal acts in the military prisons of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib.
As a signatory of the Convention against Torture, the US is obliged to prosecute for these crimes. Nevertheless, there is evidence concerning the torture program after 11 September 2001 with a particular focus on the liability of high ranking US officials, including former President Bush.
Belgium failed to investigate and prevent torture in US detention camp Guantánamo. Former detainee and Belgian citizen Zemmouri together with ECCHR argues that Belgian officials were complicit in the abuse.
The case of Khaled El Masri is one of the best documented extraordinary renditions by the CIA. Several inquiry commissions took up this case and a number of lawsuits were filed before different national and regional courts.
ECCHR sumbitted an amici curiae brief in order to support the compensation claim in the Arar case. Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen, was arrested and abducted by US officials in 2002 and brought to Syria. During his one-year detention he suffered torture and was imprisoned under inhumane conditions.
In March 2009, ECCHR partner lawyer Gonzalo Boye filed a criminal complaint against six former US officials of the Bush administration regarding their accountability for violations of international law, including war crimes and torture. The US officials became known as the “Bush Six.”
Moroccan citizen El Haski was convicted to imprisonment in 2004 in Belgium for several offences committed with regard to an alleged terrorist group. At his conviction, witness testimony from Morocco was used which, according to El Haski, was procured by torture.
ECCHR sent an advisory opinion to the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. The statement seeks to draw the commission’s attention to the cases of two persons who suffered severe injuries when they were shot at by Bahraini security forces before being forcibly removed from hospital, imprisoned, and abused.
Torture of detained members of the opposition: London High Court accepted in 2014 that Bahraini Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al-Khalifa is not immune from prosecution. This decision opened the door to an investigation by the Metropolitan Police War Crimes Team.
Bahrain-born British citizen Jaafar al-Hasabi submitted a criminal complaint in Dublin against Bahraini Attorney General Ali Bin al-Buainain. Al-Hasabi was detained and tortured in Bahrain in 2010. Since then, he tries to bring those responsible to court.
More than 30,000 people fell victim to the military dictatorship in Argentina (1976-1983). The victims included around one hundred people with German citizenship or German roots, among them Elisabeth Käsemann.
In December 2005, Wolfgang Kaleck, founder and general secretary of ECCHR, filed a criminal complaint against former Uzbek minister of interior Zakir Almatov, the Uzbek head of secret service Rustan Inojatov, and others to the Federal Public Prosecutor on behalf of eight Uzbek citizens because of torture and crimes against humanity.
The Spanish judiciary brought charges against judge Garzón, who declared his court competent to undertake preliminary investigations into the enforced disappearance, torture and execution during the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship. Garzón was acquitted of the charges later-on. It remains doubtful whether Spain is willing to independently adress the past atrocities.
ECCHR supports claimants in a case of corporate crime in front of the US Supreme Court. The proceedings are a continuation of the high-profile case taken against Shell. The claimants argue that Shell, through its Nigerian subsidiary, aided and abetted crimes, including torture and extrajudicial executions.