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Amnesty: 141 countries still torture

30 years after UN Convention on Torture, 44 percent believe they are not safe from torture if detained by authorities

Three decades after the U.N. Convention Against Torture imposed measures to eradicate the practice, torture still happens in 141 countries — many of which are signatories to that convention — according to Amnesty International’s annual report on torture released Tuesday.

According to the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” That agreement, as well as the various Geneva Conventions and the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights, have all dictated an absolute ban on torture for any purpose — even in times of war.

And yet, in police headquarters, secret prisons and CIA black sites, detainees across the globe report being subjected to torture as a means of extracting information or confessions, silencing dissent or simply as punishment. The Amnesty report details 27 categories of torture reported in the past year, including electric shocks, mock executions, water torture, rape and sexual violence and the pulling of teeth.

The findings point to what Michael Bochenek, Amnesty’s senior director for International Law and Policy, called a “disconnect” between policy and practice and between public condemnation of torture and the pervading misconception that “this is the way it has to be” for states to be kept secure.

Despite overwhelming opposition to torture in most of the world’s countries and the litany of international conventions expressly forbidding the practice, an Amnesty poll found that 44 percent of people worldwide still are not confident they would be safe from torture if taken into custody by authorities in their country.

That number was 32 percent in the United States, where details of the CIA’s now-terminated “enhanced interrogation” practices and rendition programs are soon to be revealed in a Senate Intelligence report.

Manfred Nowak, the former U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, told Al Jazeera that the U.S. — once viewed as a vanguard in the fight for human rights worldwide — has opened the door for other countries to engage in torture under the auspices of fighting terrorism. In the post-9/11 world, Nowak and others say many countries have followed the U.S.' lead and cited national security interests and the “ticking time bomb” rationale to justify the use of any means necessary to extract information from suspected terror suspects.

Former CIA director George Tenet said in 2007 that the agency's rendition program had prevented terror plots against the U.S. and saved countless lives, concluding that the "enhanced interrogation" of suspects at secret CIA facilities was "worth more than the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency put together have been able to tell us."

Though President Barack Obama scaled back the most controversial of these CIA programs in 2009 and has promised to shut down the controversial Guantanamo Bay detention center, he has been criticized for not offering any form of reparation to detainees who were tortured there. Those who carried out illegal torture of terror suspects have not been brought to justice either, rights groups say.

Though many point to U.S. influence, it is difficult to identify correlations among states that do torture; they are not all authoritarian and many are signatories to every international convention prohibiting torture.

One factor Amnesty observed in some countries was inadequate training for police and intelligence officers, who resort to torture as a shortcut to proper investigation when they know there won't be repercussions for their actions. Brazil and Mexico, two states where police enjoy frequent impunity for their transgressions behind closed doors, had the highest percent of respondents say they did not feel safe from torture if arrested.

In other countries, the use of torture is part and parcel of broader state-sponsored discrimination against minorities — including religious groups, ethnic groups and LGBTQ communities.

“Take China, where we have a situation where the state reacts with suspicion or outright hostility towards ethnic and religious minorities," said Bochenek. "There are consistent reports of harassment, arbitrary detention and torture of Uighurs or Tibetan Buddhists — anybody who does not belong to the official recognized religious group.”

National security has been cited in Nigeria, where Amnesty received a flood of reports accusing security forces of unwarranted detention and brutal torture amid the state's campaign to crush the Boko Haram insurgency, which has killed more than 4,000 people in five years.

Fifteen-year-old Suleiman Ali told Amnesty he and 50 others, mostly teenagers, were accused in March 2013 of having ties to the radical rebel group and taken to a security facility in Yobe State nicknamed "Guantanamo." There, Ali said he was beaten and had plastic melted on his body. Ali was released a month later and survived after emergency medical treatment, but most of the other 30 prisoners who were released died.

As international condemnation and U.N. conventions have not proven sufficient deterrents against the use of torture in extenuating circumstances, arguments that torture can be an unreliable interrogation tool — torture victims will often say whatever the interrogator wants to hear in order to make the pain stop — or that it can even be counterproductive to national security might hold more sway.

Many say the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques used at CIA detention facilities like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, which included waterboarding until 2009, fueled anti-American sentiment and undermined U.S. credibility on human rights issues.

"The U.S. has incurred tremendous damage to its ability to conduct foreign policy," said Bochenek. “It also means the U.S. might have had more ability to persuade other states to change their torture practices. Now they’ve lost that.”

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