To Fight Torture & Impunity, Police Officers Must Be Easily Identifiable

States have an obligation under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to put in place safeguards to protect people from torture and ill-treatment.

The European Court on Human Rights (ECtHR) has said that this requires that there should be an effective investigation, capable of leading to the identification and, if appropriate, the punishment of those responsible.

The importance of adequate police identification systems

United Nations and Council of Europe human rights bodies have recurrently concluded that Spanish courts have failed to carry out effective investigations into complaints of ill-treatment, insisting that authorities make little effort to prosecute alleged offenders and that such practice fosters a culture of impunity. In as many as in nine cases in the last 13 years, the ECtHR has found Spain to be in breach of the ECHR after Spanish courts had failed to carry out effective investigations into complaints of torture or ill-treatment. The UN Human Rights Committee and the Committee Against Torture, acting in their quasi-jurisdictional capacity, have also concluded in five cases that Spanish judicial authorities had failed to carry out effective investigations into allegations of torture or ill-treatment.

If states are required to carry out official, effective investigations, this implies an obligation to ensure law enforcement officials are clearly and visibly identified in all circumstances when performing their duties. The identification of law enforcement agents is an essential safeguard to adequately prevent torture and ill-treatment and a culture of impunity.

The case of Ms. Lopez Martinez is representative of Spain’s systematic failure to carry out thorough, adequate and efficient investigations into allegations of torture and ill-treatment. For this reason, Liberties member Rights International Spain submitted a third-party intervention to the ECtHR to address this issue as well as, and linked to this, the obligation for law enforcement officials to be clearly identifiable as an essential element of Article 3 of the ECHR to prevent torture and ill-treatment.

Background of the case

On 29 September 2012, Ms. Lopez Martinez was in a bar after having participated in a demonstration. She claims that anti-riot police agents entered the bar and removed her from the premises. The applicant claims that, whilst in the street, she was beaten and humiliated by those agents. She alleges that, after she made complaints of her ill-treatment, no effective investigation was carried out and the case was closed because she could not identify the agents.

Due to numerous complaints received concerning police officers not wearing their identification numbers or hiding them or turning them upside down or the difficulty to read them at a distance, the Spanish ombudsperson opened an investigation and made numerous recommendations to increase the size of the identification badge and numbers as well as to place the badge in different parts of the uniform so they are visible.

The problem persists

The Ministry of Interior acknowledged that the reason why anti-riot officers were not properly identified was the fact that in certain circumstances they had to wear protective clothing, such as anti-trauma or bulletproof vests, which did not allow for the identification number or badge to be attached to them. Since these vests are worn on top of the uniform, the identification number and the badge are thus covered and not visible.

The Ministry therefore introduced changes, creating a specific high visibility number for anti-riot police to wear attached to the back of their vests. Despite this change, however, the Spanish ombudsperson continues to receive complaints about police identification issues. This means the system is still ineffective and the problem has not been solved yet. Rights International Spain hopes the European Court of Human Rights will recognise that an adequate identification system for members of law enforcement agencies is an essential element of the procedural protection afforded by Article 3 of the ECHR.

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