Tuesday 14 April 2015

The difference between torture and other ill-treatment: Cestaro v. Italy and the “prohibited purpose” requirement


Christina Kosin (LL.M. Edinburgh) Ph.D. candidate and academic assistant at the German Police University

What is the central element which distinguishes torture from inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment? Some scholars claim that the “prohibited purpose” requirement of the torture definition is the most central as well as the only criterion which is decisive in differentiating between that crime and other forms of ill-treatment.. However, in my view this is incorrect, and indeed the recent judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in Cestaro v. Italy shows (once again) that the “prohibited purpose” component of torture is not the only decisive criterion in distinguishing the crime from other inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

The judgment

Mr Cestaro was among the protesters surrounding the G-8 summit in Genoa, Italy from 21st to 22nd July 2001 (para. 7). On the first day of the summit of the world’s leading industrial States around 100,000 protesters gathered and demonstrated against globalisation (para. 19). Various radical groups such as the so-called “black blocks” were amongst the peaceful anti-globalisation protesters and engaged in violent and/or criminal conduct such as the looting of the city (para. 12). During the two days of incidents, hundreds of protesters and police forces were injured and one young person died (paras. 18-21). From the 21st to 22nd July 2001, Mr Cestaro and other protesters were housed in a school, which was stormed by the Italian police at that time. Mr Cestaro and others were brutally ill-treated while peacefully and legally lodging in the school (para. 182). The actual aim of the police mission was to search the school for evidence that could lead to the identification and possible arrest of members of the “black blocks” (para. 182). Mr Cestaro was subjected to repeated kicks and beatings with the tonfa, which is considered a potentially lethal weapon. As a result, Mr Cestaro suffered multiple fractures and a permanent impediment in his right arm and right leg (para. 178). The ECtHR ruled that the treatment by the police amounted to torture.

Ultimately he challenged the Italian state before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), which issued its judgment in the case on 7 April. He alleged that Italy had committed a material and procedural breach of Article 3 of the ECHR, which states that “[n]o one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. Neither torture nor the terms “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” are defined in the Convention. The Court’s practice has shown that it understands torture as defined in Article 1 (1) in the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT). According to this definition, torture needs to be inflicted on a person

“for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind”.

This is the so known “prohibited purpose” requirement. Next to this, there are four more elements of the UNCAT torture definition namely (1) the act must be inflicted intentional, (2) the act must cause severe, physical or mental, pain or suffering, (3) the treatment must be inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent of or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity and (4) pain arising out of lawful sanctions is not included.

The issue at hand is that the prohibited purpose requirement is mistaken for the only criterion which is able to differentiate between torture and less serious ill-treatment. This confusion arose because of various reasons. The European Commission on Human Rights, which used to rule on cases together with the ECtHR, stipulated in the 1969 Greek case that torture “is often used to describe inhuman treatment, which has a purpose, such as the obtaining of information or confessions, or the infliction of punishment” (p. 186). This was interpreted to mean that the purpose requirement is the distinguishing element between torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment while the other elements remain static. Further, the ECtHR has never classified a treatment which lacked the purpose requirement as torture. In addition, some scholars claim that the drafting history of the UNCAT, the travaux préparatoires, indicates that this criterion is the sole distinguishing factor between the two forms of ill-treatment. Although these reasons sound compelling, the interpretation was wrong and the prohibited purpose requirement is not the sole decisive factor as is shown below.

In section “Aperçu de la jurisprudence en matière de « torture » “, the Court provided a brief overview of its jurisprudence concerning Article 3. In the subsequent section “Application en l’espèce”, the ECtHR applied the facts to the case. Both sections elucidate that the prohibited purpose criterion is a vital but not the only requirement to differentiate torture from inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

In the former section, the Court did not highlight the ostensible uniqueness of the prohibited purpose requirement. Rather, the Court showed that different criteria of the treatment can be decisive in classifying an act as torture. The Court highlighted that torture can be distinguished from other ill-treatment by the special stigma which is attached to the crime – torture implies very serious and cruel pain and suffering as well as the deliberate/intentional infliction of such pain. In the Court’s words, “[o]utre la gravité des traitmens, la « torture » implique une volonté délibérée.”  (para. 171).

Then, the Court referred to cases in which it found a combination of the gravity of the treatment and the intentional element such as in Aksoy v. Turkey and Yaman v. Turkey (para. 172). In this context the ECtHR noted that all these cases contained a purpose to obtain information, to punish somebody or to intimidate the person (para. 172). This is the first time the ECtHR mentioned the element of the prohibited purpose. The ECtHR further elucidated that it put a special weight on the severity of the pain in some cases such as Aslan v. Turkey or on the arbitrariness of the violence in other cases such as in Romanov v. Russia (para. 173-174). Towards the end of this section the Court explained that it did not classify some police actions as torture such as in Krastanov v. Bulgaria as the prohibited purpose element was missing and because the pain was inflicted for a short duration only (para. 175). This constitutes the second time when the Court mentioned the purpose criterion. Lastly, the Court stipulated that some cases such as Gäfgen did not constitute torture because the level of cruelty required was not reached (para. 176).

The ECtHR clearly revealed that various components can determine whether a particular treatment constitutes torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment: the gravity of the treatment, the intentional infliction of the treatment, the severity of the pain, the arbitrariness of the violence, the prohibited purpose, the duration of the treatment and the level of cruelty of the act. The Court did not classify these examples as exhaustive and one can assume that other factors of the treatment as well can trigger a distinction between torture and other forms of ill-treatment. The prohibited purpose criterion of the UNCAT torture definition is not the only decisive factor.

In the section “Application en l’espèce”, the ECtHR provided reasons for classifying the treatment by the police as torture. In its reasoning, the Court did not explicitly state which element of the conduct by the police was decisive for classifying the violence as torture and not inhuman or degrading treatment. The arguments by the ECtHR suggest that a variety of characteristics of the treatment contributed to the Court’s decision.

The Court put forward that the pain was inflicted by the police with the purpose to punish and to retaliate and with the aim to cause pain and suffering (para. 177). The prohibited purpose by the police was hence to punish and retaliate. This is the first and last time that the ECtHR referred to the purpose requirement in this section. The Court noted that there is no denying that the pain and suffering was of particular seriousness and cruelty (para. 179). As mentioned above, the applicant suffered from a permanent impediment resulting out of the beatings he received. Further, it was stated that there was no link between the applicant’s conduct and the force used by the police. The Court emphasised that Mr Cestaro did not resist in any way and that the infliction of pain was thus disproportionate (para. 180).

Although the mission of the police was to search the school, the public officials immediately used force (paras. 180-182). Instead of trying to enter the building peacefully and negotiate with the protesters, the police stormed the building by breaking down the gates and promptly used violence against the protestors (para. 183). The Court then went on and stressed that the police tried to justify its actions by arguments such as the protection of the nation was at stake (para.184-185). It is indeed true that the 21st July was marked by heavy violence through the looting and devastation of the city of Genoa (para. 20). One can imagine that the police was under paramount pressure and strain throughout the whole day. The Court, however, correctly observed that the situation in the school was entirely different as the protesters were calm and did not resist the violence of the police (para. 186). Based on these grounds the Court reached the conclusion that the treatment by the police amounted to torture as understood in Article 3 ECHR (para. 190). The ECtHR put forward several reasons for classifying the treatment by the police as torture but it did not single out one specific factor. It seems that the immediate, disproportionate and serious infliction of pain was vital for the Court to arrive at its decision. The prohibited purpose criterion was not the triggering criterion in this case.


The Cestaro v. Italy case shows that the prohibited purpose element in the UNCAT definition is not the sole criterion which distinguishes torture from other inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The presumption that the purpose requirement is the most important feature of torture does not automatically mean that it is the only one.

As indicated at the outset, Cestaro v. Italy is not the first case which revealed that the prohibited purpose requirement is not the sole factor able to distinguish between both crimes in the UNCAT. In the case Ireland v. the UK in 1978, the ECtHR ruled that the five techniques employed by the British forces did not constitute torture because they did not reach the level of cruelty and intensity as implied by the term (para. 167). In Selmouni v. France 1999 the Court reached a judgment on similar grounds. The ECtHR stated that the victim was subjected to torture because the pain and suffering was of particular seriousness and cruelty (para. 101-105). In Romanov v. Russia 2002, the Strasbourg Court found a multitude of reasons why the treatment by the prison wards constituted torture. However, it put a special emphasise on the arbitrariness of the beatings the victim received (para. 70).

These cases already revealed that other factors than the purpose requirement can make a difference between torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Nevertheless, some still claim that only the purpose requirement can be decisive. They base their arguments on the travaux préparatoires of the UNCAT as well as old case law from different treaty bodies. The Cestaro v. Italy case reiterates that the prohibited purpose criterion is not the sole element which is capable of differentiating between torture and other ill-treatment.

One can now assume that the consequences flowing from this case and other similar jurisprudence of the ECtHR, will mainly concern theoretical discussions among legal scholars. The consequence could, however, have negative effects beyond that. The Strasbourg Court is not the only organ which uses the UNCAT definition of torture in its cases concerning violations of Article 3 ECHR. The Committee Against Torture (CAT) as well as the Human Rights Committee (HRC) provide decisions on the basis of Article 1 (1) UNCAT. The former body applies and interprets the UNCAT and the latter body enforces the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). If the ECtHR, the CAT and the HRC use different grounds for distinguishing torture from other ill-treatment, this could shed a negative light on the consistency and the trustworthiness of these bodies. Considering that the ban on torture is international, the jurisprudence should be consistent as well – at least with regard to the most important and international bodies which decide on torture cases, should it not? In the worst case scenario, the victims of torture could additionally suffer from legal uncertainty.


Barnard & Peers: chapter 9

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