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Interview with Philippe Mary, professor criminology and member of the CPT

Blog, Interview, Humanitarian Aid, Philippe Mary
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Fedactio had the honour to interview Philippe Mary; professor criminology at the Université libre de Bruxelles and member of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT).

What is CPTs goal?
The CPT was found 30 years ago. It resulted from the observation that although there was a legal instrument at European level against torture and assault, Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights («No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment»), the prevention mechanism was absent. Prevention became the goal of the CPT. The CPTs work mainly concerns the conditions of the people in detention, whatever the reason for that detention may be.
The CPTs area of work coincides with the territory of the Council of Europe. This massive, geographically-diverse landmass is a very extensive area, stretching from Siberia to French Guiana. Consequently, our institutional groundwork is equally dispersed. We work together with the 47 Member States of the Council of Europe including Russia, Turkey and Azerbaijan. These countries might seem geographically foreign in our West-European gaze. As a result, the specific cases of people in prison differ geographically and within the context of diverse populations. Consequently, the CPT is authorized to research deprivation of liberty by the police, in prison, in refugee centers, in centers for minorities, in psychiatric hospitals and even in social housing for elders and people with mental illnesses.
The prevention of the CPT is based on two major principles: cooperation and confidentiality. First of all, there is the principle of cooperation. We are cooperating with all of the Member States. Contrary to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), it’s not our task to condemn countries. The other important principle is that of confidentiality. The main activity of the CPT is to send delegations of members and experts. Sometimes we visit a country for a certain period (usually for 4 to 5 years), or we chose for an ad hoc visit because of the specific circumstances.
For example, during the strikes in the Belgian prisons, we organized an ad hoc visit to check the conditions of the inmates (I can’t give you more information about this specific case due to confidentiality reasons). After such a visit we always report to the government. Firstly, we arrange a meeting with the representative of the country, usually the Minister of Justice or Minister of Health. This way we get a first feedback. However, in some cases we demand the immediate shutdown of certain facilities when the conditions are unacceptable.
Secondly, we write a report that has to be adopted by the plenary session of the CPT. We then pass it on to the government. The report is confidential. For example, we visited the administrative detention center of Marseille (France). First, we write a report. Once the report is approved by the CPT, we have to seek the permission of the French government before publishing it. In most of the cases, they agree. Even though some counties are more reluctant (for example Russia), more than 90% of the reports are published. And the reaction of the Member States will be published as well. If Russia, for example, refuses to publish a report, people will be aware. The publishing of both the reports and the reaction of governments allows us to provide relevant information to the general public or to the ECHR. Thos also means that there is full transparency. The ECHR relies more and more on our reports, so our observations allow us to support the claims of the justice in court. Clearly, our reports do have a direct effect on the judgments of the ECHR.

What is your relation to the political power and why is it important to have an independent committee?
We are the only ones in Europe who have access to detention facilities without conditions. We have the permission to speak to everybody without witnesses and get access to all the documents without restrictions. Normally, we should get the approval of the Member States. That is why our principles of cooperation and confidentiality are crucial. For example, we are the only ones who can visit Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the PKK who is isolated and locked on an island without having met with his lawyers for years now. The one condition is to stay loyal to the Convention (of the ECHR) and having the full support of the Member States. Our independence is crucial, obviously. A monitoring committee should always be independent of the political power. Our independence facilitates the freedom of speech.
Another activity of the CPT is conducting high-level conversations when a country has to deal with a specific problem. In that case, there will be a small delegation (Chairman, Executive Secretary,…) who meets the minister who is in charge. Those conversations will be kept discreet and should never be published. To guarantee the independence, national members of the CPT may never interfere in their own country. They cannot participate in discussions in the plenary session and they can’t take part in visits to their country. So there will be no doubt about the independence of the committee. In specific cases, we will keep the CPT members out of the meetings because of safety measures. This way we can ensure CPT members can do their job without fear of retaliation.

What are the greatest difficulties you encounter during your work?
A great difficulty is the psychological impact of our visits. The hardship in the daily reality weighs heavily on us. I think everyone can imagine how a Turkish prison looks like after the coup; overcrowded cells, people who were arrested without a reason… But maybe the main difficulty is to keep on influencing the Member States. They voluntarily signed our agreement. Due to the voluntary nature of the agreement, they refuse to accept a lot of our restrictions. The ultimate weapon of the CPT is the public statement. If a Member State refuses to cooperate, we will a make public statement in the press. In the end, our greatest strength lies in our ability to exercise moral pressure. Before publishing reports, we first meet with the parties involved. Sometimes it’s complicated to exert influence on a problematic situation where the human rights are being violated, more specifically under article 3 of the Convention about the prevention of torture and inhumane and degrading treatment.

What can the Belgian government improve?
Normally I wouldn’t be able to answer this question, since I’m not supposed to intervene in matters concerning my own country. I will not answer this question as a member of the CPT, but I’m advising as a professor at the university. Belgium is dealing with different problems. Firstly, there is the issue of our overcrowded prisons. In spite of the efforts during this parliamentary term, there still is a shortage of space. Secondly, we have the notorious minimum service: trade unions are obliged to provide a number of services during strikes.
In prisons we are dealing with a specific case. I would like to point out we are speaking about a very specific situation. In prisons, inmates are fully dependent on the staff, even more than in patients in hospitals for example. When hospitals have reached their limits, we can assume the immediate family can bring food for the patients. That is not the case in the prisons. The risks that arise in the terms of inhuman and degrading treatment in prisons are far greater. That is one of the problems that need to be tackled in Belgium.
Finally, a third example: the problematic collocation of mentally ill prisoners. The delinquent is declared to be not responsible for their actions due to a psychiatric disease. This problem goes back to 1930. Since then, there were some sincere attempts to improve the situation, however not all of them were successful. But the overpopulation and treatment of mentally ill delinquents occurs in the other Member States as well. We cannot see that as an isolated case.

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