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Friday, 25 January, 2002, 11:42 GMT
Analysis: Interrogation methods
US troops escort a prisoner to a cell at the Guantanamo Bay detention centre
US says the prisoners are "unlawful combatants"
As the row over America's treatment of suspected al-Qaeda prisoners continues, Jenny Waters outline what means of questioning are acceptable under international law.

There are more than 100 prisoners being held at the US base in Guantanamo Bay and the American authorities are determined to find out what part they may have played in planning action against the US.

The US has classified them not as "prisoners of war" - who under the Geneva Convention are only required to give their name, rank and army serial number - but as "unlawful combatants".

Once you start creating rules and laws and regulations of your own in order to suit the situation you're on a very slippery downwards slope

Helen Bamber,
Medical Foundation for the Victims of Torture
The Geneva Convention states that it does not cover "unlawful combatants" - which it defines as fighters not in uniform and not representing a formed state.

But Helen Bamber of the Medical Foundation for the Victims of Torture says it is not up to the US to decide if the Geneva Convention applies in this case.

"I do believe it should apply because I think it's for a competent court to decide about the Geneva Convention," she says.

"I think that once you start creating rules and laws and regulations of your own in order to suit the situation you're on a very slippery downwards slope."

'Legal torture'

But even if a detainee is not a prisoner of war as defined by the Geneva Convention there are international agreements and treaties designed to make sure that they are not ill-treated while they are being questioned.

The UN Convention Against Torture, for example, defines what torture is, prohibits it and lays out how to prosecute those people who are guilty of it.

"It does set out some requirements on interrogation mainly to do with training of law enforcement officials in interrogation methods and securing proper supervision of law enforcement officials who might interview people and making them aware that torture is a crime," says Ralph Crawshaw, from the Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex in England.

Gas mask
Gas masks are used in what is known as the elephant torture
There cannot be a country in the world where people are not occasionally mistreated during questioning and in some countries this happens as a matter of routine.

But Liz Hodgkin of Amnesty International says putting heavy pressure on detainees to answer questions is almost always illegal under national laws - although there was for a while a notable exception to that.

"Up until 1987 torture existed in Israel, as it does in many countries, but Israeli interrogators denied it," she says

"In 1987 it came to light that torture was being used and they set up a commission of inquiry. This commission was convinced by the argument of the general security service that they needed physical pressure in order to get information out of detainees and so it recommended that interrogators should be allowed to use what they called a moderate measure of physical or psychological pressure.

"What this meant is that from 1987 Israel was the only country in the world in which torture - or treatment amounting often to torture - was effectively legalised."

Elephant torture

But the methods permitted by Israel's legislation came in for international criticism.

These methods, Ms Hodgkin says, included prolonged sleep deprivation, putting hoods over people's heads, making them squat for long periods, keeping them for long periods in a painful condition and violent shaking.

One of the biggest mistakes an investigator can make is to launch into an interview without properly preparing for it and to try to secure a confession

Ralph Crawshaw,
Human Rights Centre
"But then in 1999, after a campaign by human rights activists, the high court of justice of Israel ruled that such methods were not reasonable and should stop."

There are many countries where law and practice do not meet on this issue.

Mariana Katzarova, a researcher for Amnesty International who gathers information from people who have been tortured in police custody, says one of the most popular methods is called elephant torture.

"A gas mask is placed on the suspect's head and a police officer controls the flow of oxygen into the mask until the suspect loses consciousness or starts suffocating," she says.

"A number of victims have lost their lives as a result of such suffocations in police custody," she says.


But why do police resort to these methods?

Mariana Katzarova says that often a weakness in the legal or policing system will encourage it. She cites the example of the way that crimes are investigated in Russia.

"One reason is the system for accounting for the investigation of crimes. The Russian police is still heavily pressurised to come up quickly with suspects for crimes.

"This is an old Soviet system and this is how their work is evaluated by the Ministry of Interior - how many suspects they have arrested. So they have to produce these suspects and the easiest way is torture in detention."

Unacceptable pressure on a prisoner during questioning does not have to take the form of physical abuse.


A number of convictions have been over turned by the Court of Appeal in the UK because evidence was obtained by police who were questioning detainees in what was described as an "oppressive" manner - usually shouting - and asking questions over and over again.

Ralph Crawshaw says that if police and security forces want accurate information, relying too much on questioning detainees - particularly using pressure - is not the best way of getting it.

"One of the biggest mistakes an investigator can make is to launch into an interview without properly preparing for it and to try to secure a confession," he says.

"If that happens the danger is the person might be persuaded to confess to something they have not done then the investigator will go out and collect evidence to support the case against that person. That's what happened with the miscarriages of justice in the UK," Mr Crawshaw says.

See also:

23 Nov 01 | Middle East
UN warns Israel over torture reports
19 May 01 | Americas
Mexico moves to end police torture
01 Mar 01 | Middle East
'Widespread' torture in Egypt
15 May 00 | Americas
US rebuked over torture
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