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Governments in Europe and North America are increasingly sending suspects to abusive states on the basis of flimsy “diplomatic assurances” that expose the detainees to serious risk of torture and ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.

The 91-page report, Still at Risk: Diplomatic Assurances No Safeguard against Torture, documents the growing practice among Western governments—including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands—of seeking assurances of humane treatment in order to transfer terrorism suspects to states with well-established records of torture. The report details a dozen cases involving actual or attempted transfers to countries where torture is commonplace.

“Governments that engage in torture always try to hide what they’re doing, so their ‘assurances’ on torture can never be trusted,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “This is a very negative trend in international diplomacy, and it’s doing real damage to the global taboo against torture.”

States that offer such assurances include some of the most abusive regimes in the world—Syria, Egypt and Uzbekistan. Transfers have also been effected or proposed to Yemen, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Russia, and Turkey, where certain people—for example, suspected Islamists, Chechens, or Kurds—are singled out for particularly brutal abuse.

Torture is banned under international law. No exceptions are allowed, even in times of war or national emergency. The ban includes the absolute prohibition on transferring people to places where they face a risk of torture.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, the Council of Europe Commissioner on Human Rights, and the U. N. Independent Expert on human rights and counter-terrorism have all warned that the use of assurances is eroding the global ban on torture.

The new report follows the April 2004 Human Rights Watch report "Empty Promises": Diplomatic Assurances No Safeguard against Torture, and draws on new case material from North America and Europe, including the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Sweden, Austria and the Netherlands.

As the cases show, evidence is mounting that people who are returned to states that torture are in fact tortured, regardless of diplomatic assurances. And courts are increasingly recognizing the problem, and subjecting diplomatic assurances to greater scrutiny.

Officials in the United States recently acknowledged the transfer of an undisclosed number of suspects to countries where torture is a serious human rights problem, claiming they received diplomatic assurances prior to the transfers. But in an increasing number of those cases—so-called “extraordinary renditions”—the suspects have credibly alleged that they were tortured.

The problem is much broader than just the United States:

  • In Canada, the government’s “security certificate” regime permits deportations of alleged terrorism suspects to places where they are at risk of torture. To stem criticism in some of these cases, the Canadian government has sought assurances against torture from receiving states such as Egypt and Morocco.
  • The December 2001 expulsions of two Egyptian asylum seekers from Sweden based on assurances against torture caused a national scandal in Sweden after the men credibly alleged that they had been tortured and ill-treated in Egyptian custody. The Swedish government denies any responsibility for the men’s treatment in Egypt.
  • The government of the United Kingdom is reportedly in negotiations with the Algerian and Moroccan governments to allow the transfer of terrorism suspects on the basis of assurances that they would not be tortured. But people labeled “terrorists” in those countries are routinely targeted for abusive treatment, including torture.
  • Governments in the Netherlands, Austria, and Germany, have also sought assurances to effect extraditions to countries such as Turkey and Russia, where terrorism suspects are at heightened risk of abusive treatment in detention.
  • “Governments that are using diplomatic assurances know full well that they don’t protect against torture,” said Roth. “But in the age of terror, they’re convenient. Only pressure from the public in Europe and North America can stop this negative trend.”

    Governments rely on a variety of devices to transfer suspects to other countries, including renditions, removals, deportations, extraditions and expulsions. But none of them is legally permissible if the person to be transferred is at risk of torture on return.

    “If these suspects are criminals they should be prosecuted, and if they’re not, they should be released,” said Roth. “But shipping them off to countries where they’ll be tortured is not an acceptable solution.”

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