We called it the Troubles, a nondescript term to describe the violence and civil unrest that pervaded in 1970s Ireland. As riots, gunshots, interrogation, and interment remained a daily occurrence for many, 1971 was, for 14 men, a pivotal crater to the seeming normalcy of their lives.
Known as the ‘hooded men’, these 14 catholic men were interred and made to endure specialist interrogations for prolonged periods by British security forces.Today, the nine remaining men expected a finding that the treatment they received as part of Operation Demetrius in 1971 would be classified as torture.
Instead, the European Court of Human Rights, (ECHR) found, by a 6 – 1 majority, that there was no justification to revise a 1978 ruling, which had concluded their treatment during interment was to be classified as inhumane and degrading.
Speaking after the ruling, Liam Shannon, one of the men, said: “This decision is not based on what happened to us. Calling it degrading treatment and not torture, means the case has been settled on a legal technicality. We have to acknowledge that the flawed decision in 1978 has led to Guantanamo and many other people being tortured. This must be stopped no matter where and when.”
In 1976, the European Commission on Human Rights found that the UK had tortured the men; the UK appealed this decision claiming the techniques used had no long-term impact.
The appeal succeeded and in 1978 the European Court of Human Rights found that the interrogation amounted to “inhuman and degrading treatment”, but not torture.
Today the court concluded that new evidence submitted by Ireland does not demonstrate sufficient prima facie evidence to conclude torture.
Another survivor, Francis McGuigan, said: “A key aspect of today’s judgement are the facts highlighted by the dissenting judge. In her concluding remarks the judge says, ‘findings by the London supreme court and Belfast supreme court concluded this was torture.’” Hundreds of men and women were brought in for questioning during the Troubles, but Shannon says the detailed information supplied to the court: “Did as far as I was concerned, prove our case, and that there were ministerial implications in this case and it went straight all the way to 10 downing street.”
Although the UK denied torture in 1976, then Prime Minister Ted Heath announced a prohibition by UK forces of any future use of the techniques employed in specialist interrogations.
Hooding, stress positions, white noise, sleep deprivation and deprivation of food and water – along with beatings and death threats, were used on the 14 detainees.
Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty Ireland, said: “This ruling is disappointing, but needs to be seen for what it is. It is not saying the ‘five techniques’ are not torture. We are quite confident what was done to these men would be deemed as torture by the Court in today’s terms if this case were heard afresh.”
The court in its finding has alluded to the lack of evidence to support the long term emotional affect the treatment has had on the men. O’Gorman says: “Nevertheless, it is disappointing that the Court chose a procedural route to avoid addressing substantively the newly-revealed facts, in particular clear evidence of the severe long-term effects of “deep interrogation” had on its victims. Interrogation techniques causing such suffering can only be legally described in one word – torture.”
Sara Duddy, from The Pat Finnucane Centre (PFC) which has advocated for acknowledgment of torture, says: “We are disappointed that the ECHR took this decision today and our thoughts are very much with the surviving hooded men and the families of the hooded men who have passed away. It is clear that the ECHR has taken an overtly narrow interpretation of what constitutes ‘torture’ and this has wide-reaching implications for the treatment of detainees world-wide.”
Alluding to previous cases heard under the highest chief justice, Lord Bingham and justice Maguire, McGuigan says: “In the London and Belfast supreme court cases, agreement was that what happened to us was torture, and we are dismayed at the ECHR for not doing this, they had an opportunity to stop torture all around the world.”
Duddy notes that the PFC uncovered future declassified British government documents showing that members of the British army used waterboarding and serious sexual assaults interrogating suspects. One case in particular was raised at a meeting between the Taoiseach Jack Lynch and the Prime Minster Ted Heath.
We called it the Troubles back in the 1970s, and that trouble still permeates the future for the nine men who say they will not give up their fight.
McGuigan says: “While anyone of us has breath left in our bodies we will fight this, there is no weakness in our determination to fight this. We are far from giving up.”