Some can’t believe torture exists, some don’t want to believe it



Bilbao.  These are extracts from an interview published in the GARA Basque newspaper on February 9th, with the prestigious international forensic investigator Paco Etxeberria about the subject of torture.

February 13th in the Basque country is a day of reference against torture since the death in 1981 of Joxe Arregi after being tortured for 9 days in the cells of the Spanish police. The forensic investigator Paco Etxeberria has closely followed the evolution of this scourge in the past decades. In this interview he details how torture is lived in police basements and legal offices, and what conclusions he extracts from it.

You began to visit detainees in at the beginning of the 80?s when they still came out of the cells with marks on them (there is the case of Joxe Arregi whose cadaver was covered with bruises). How did you live that situation? Did it surprise you?

No. I had previous news that this could occur, from some family member who had no reason to deceive me or from some friend from school who came back to class missing some teeth. So I wasn’t surprised, sure, it’s more horrific when you see it close up and it’s up to you to do something. The first cases that I remember are of detainees who could barely stand up. On occasions we wrote this down on paper, which is the most difficult, and we weren’t sufficiently convincing. At times we asked the judge to accompany us, or for the legal secretary to come with us, because they began to doubt us.


In October of 1983, the disappearance of Joxean Lasa and Joxi Zabala took place. Now we know that they were tortured in Gipuzkoa…

…In Gipuzkoa and at 500 metres from the Palace of Justice in which I thought I was invested with authority as a professional ready to fix the world. This is the cruel joke. That in your own city, in another public building, not so far away, the contrary of what we had in mind or what we had as an ideal was happening.

You have stated that 100% of the detainees were tortured at that time…

When a detainee tells you that in a room there was a tube from side to side and that he was tied up there, you can believe that it is a lie, but when one day you go into that room and you see that tube… I remember that with the subject of electrical torture a person told us that they showed him a small box, like a cigar box, that had written on the outside “lie detector” with blue coloured plastic. Then you think that it can be true or a lie, but when you hear it from different people who don’t have any connection among themselves, they speak of the same box and even the same colour…

They pass then to acting without leaving marks. With this are the forensic investigators left without the capacity to detect torture or are there methods to know it?

They went from bruised from a punch in the face that makes your nose bleed and swollen lips to the plastic bag, electrodes… that are really not easy to discover. We were convinced of what happened, many judges too. Another thing was how to prove it in a legal proceeding.

You have said in another interview that the forensic investigators in the Spanish National Court have played a role of covering up…

A deplorable role. They form part of a system that comes from another time. Before my time in San Sebastian there was forensic investigator and also a police doctor, that tells you everything. That’s how it was. The forensic investigators of the Spanish National Court didn’t just look the other way, they even made reports to cover up the situation.

From all of your accumulated experience, what conclusion have you reached about the objective of torture? Because it doesn’t seem like a method to get information. There is the case of Martxelo Otamendi, for example, which doesn’t make sense… Are they trying to intimidate, create psychosis, what else?

All over the world, the first phases of torture consist in forcing to do something that seems absurd. For example, dressing and undressing, again and again. It seems incomprehensible to the detainee, but with that you are saying “I’m in charge here, you are nothing”. And the detainee enters this frame of mind. In military service it also happens a lot. Being tired is later added to the absurd, with which the person surrenders even more. In those years there was torture as punishment, for being the enemy. Later also to get information. And there were ten days, so that on the tenth day the detainee was now presentable. In the dictatorship it wasn’t strange for a person to be even put in prison so that when he returned to his town they couldn’t see that he limped or had a hematoma in his eye…

You’ve known other cases like Chile. Are there specific tortures in the Basque Country?

I don’t know. It always caught my attention that there are customs in police stations, precincts… But there are things that seem like a barbarity in other countries in the world: asphyxiation and electrodes are universal. For this you only have to have the scene prepared. Here I think that in some meetings someone would say “please, don’t do these things anymore, but this, maybe.” It seems to me that with those who are extradited they use a lot of electrical torture because they bring them and in 24 hours they are practically in Madrid, with which there isn’t enough time to do much else and a few hours only give so much.

Do you see options for a Truth Commission about this subject, or at least that people who have participated in it someday break the law of silence about torture?

Years ago I was impressed by many programmes on French television in which French military personnel explained what they did in Algeria. And they said “It was up to us to do it, the orders were given, it was terrible but there was nothing else to do”. I’m waiting to see if this happens here someday. Maybe someone someday will say what he knows because he was around. Certainly it won’t be those directly responsible, but others who have heard or have seen… because the secret places in the police stations exist, but they are not far away.

I don’t know if it will serve to put them on trial or not, I suspect not, but I believe in the necessity of making an investigation. In the absence of an official truth, because the powers haven’t wanted to investigate it, we can put forward other procedures such as truth commissions. There’s more, I think that in the current Basque government there exist some initiatives that are beginning to be thought about on this subject. The proportions of the damage caused by mistreatment are important, they can’t continue to be hidden, they have affected a lot of us, there is a methodology to recover information and I think that they are going to be able to do it without much delay. They did it in Chile, with information about 16,000 people or more, and it’s official, it was validated by the public powers. Here, if we want, we can do the same.

* Source: The Basque Peace Process

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