UN says Spain tortured ETA 'terrorists'

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The Independent Online

The Spanish government was plunged into a pre-election dispute yesterday over allegations by a United Nations expert that suspected Basque terrorists had been tortured.

The Spanish government was plunged into a pre-election dispute yesterday over allegations by a United Nations expert that suspected Basque terrorists had been tortured.

Theo van Boven, a Dutch UN human rights specialist, said in a 23-page report that torture and ill treatment were "not systematic" in Spain, but that abuse was"more than sporadic and incidental". He said legal safeguards against torture were not enforced rigorously.

After interviews with victims in Spain, Mr van Boven concluded that Basque detainees faced beatings, exhausting forced physical exercise, asphyxiation with plastic bags and sleep deprivation as well as insults and threats. Abuses were fuelled by a system under which detainees could be held incommunicado, the document argued.

The report added that the impartiality of procedures for investigating victims' complaints was "questionable" and that people who won lawsuits against police had to wait almost a decade for compensation.

Yesterday's document, which provoked vociferous denials from the government in Madrid, is not the first to detail the abuse of supporters of Basque separatism. Organisations including Amnesty have called for tighter controls on police.

In an 87-page rebuttal, the Spanish government said the document contained "so many and such major factual errors that the conclusions that [Mr van Boven] reaches are very seriously weakened" and should be rejected. It criticised the fact that much of his information was based on media reports and unidentified sources.

Despite the clear criticisms of the government, the allegations are unlikely to play a significant role in the election campaigns of the political parties. Claims of torture have been made for years during the conflict in Spain's north eastern Basque region, where the Eta separatist group is waging a campaign to create an independent country. Most accusations are made against the Spanish police, rather than the Ertzaintza, the police force run by the devolved Basque government.

Madrid argues that there is a systematic campaign to discredit the authorities through fabricated torture claims. But Mr van Boven, a law professor, visited Spain last October at the invitation of the country's Foreign Ministry, meeting officials, police, campaigners and those who have complained of abuse.

His report praised the Spanish authorities for their willingness to accept international scrutiny, and backed their right to combat terrorism. The document condemned Eta for its armed campaign, noting that the group had killed more than 800 people and injured almost 2,400 since it launched its fight in 1968.

But he reinforced calls from human rights organisations for tighter rules to be implemented. Mr van Boven called on the Spanish authorities to revoke laws allowing suspects to be held incommunicado, and to improve monitoring of detention and film interrogation sessions.

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