24 – 25 July 2019 [videos at the bottom of this page]
25 July 2019 – The Committee against Torture this afternoon concluded its consideration of the seventh periodic report of Greece on the efforts made by the State party to implement the provisions of the Convention against Torture.
Introducing the report, Panos Alexandris, Secretary General for Justice and Human Rights, Ministry of Justice of Greece, said that it was his deepest belief and duty to ensure that, during his tenure as a political appointee in this Ministry, all policies concerned should be enhanced, aiming at further respecting, promoting and protecting human rights. Greece attached particular importance to the fight against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The prevention and elimination of such phenomena had been and continued to be a high priority for the Government. He stressed that parliamentary elections had been held on 7 July, and that a new parliamentary majority had been formed. The new Government was sworn in on 9 July; consequently, the present review of Greece’s periodic report coincided with a transitional phase concerning decision-making, the shaping of policies, and the undertaking of new legislative initiatives. Since the second half of 2014, a policy to curb prison overcrowding, further developed in April 2015, had been implemented. Police officers were subjected to strict disciplinary control. Actions amounting to torture or other insults to human dignity incurred the penalty of dismissal.
In the ensuing discussion, Committee Experts welcomed the participation of various State and other entities in the preparation of the report. Starting with the definition of torture, they said multiple sources had told the Committee that Parliament had voted on the complete text of the new penal code in June 2019 which would render it incompatible with the Convention. The Committee was particularly concerned about the requirement that suffering be inflicted in a “planned manner,” which excessively reduced the scope of the crime of torture and seemed to limit its applicability to situations where the practice was systematic, thus excluding isolated cases of torture. This contravened the provisions of the Convention. On legal safeguards, they said that it seemed that they were not implemented sufficiently. There was no system of regular medical visits to examine patients in police stations. They asked what measures, legislative or otherwise, had the State party adopted to implement the recommendations of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture regarding legal safeguards. Were all detained persons registered from the outset of the detention?
In his concluding remarks, Mr. Alexandris thanked the Committee. The dialogue had been frank, open and constructive. The delegation was looking forward to receiving the Committee’s concluding observations, which would be carefully examined and taken into consideration in the development of human rights policies.
Jens Modvig, Committee Chairperson, thanked the delegation for the replies and the diligent manner in which they had been provided. Three of the most urgent recommendations would be identified by the Committee for follow-up within a year, he added.
The delegation of Greece consisted of representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Citizen Protection, the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Shipping and Island Policy, and the Permanent Mission of Greece to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The Committee will next meet in public on Friday, 26 July, at 10 a.m. when it will start its consideration of the initial report of Togo (CAT/C/TGO/3).
The Committee has before it the seventh periodic report of Greece (CAT/C/GRC/7)
Presentation of the Report
PANOS ALEXANDRIS, Secretary General for Justice and Human Rights, Ministry of Justice of Greece, said that it was his deepest belief and duty to ensure that, during his tenure as a political appointee in this Ministry, all policies concerned should be enhanced, aiming at further respecting, promoting and protecting human rights. The periodic report was based on the Committee’s list of issues. Greece attached particular importance to the fight against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The prevention and elimination of such phenomena had been and continued to be a high priority for the Government. Parliamentary elections had been held on 7 July, and a new parliamentary majority had been formed. The new Government was sworn in on 9 July; consequently, the present review of Greece’s periodic report coincided with a transitional phase concerning decision-making, the shaping of policies, and the undertaking of new legislative initiatives.
Since the second half of 2014, a policy to curb prison overcrowding, further developed in April 2015, had been implemented. Thanks to the overall reduction of the prison population by 20 per cent within two years, and the subsequent stand-still policy, the number of prisoners had been stabilized, and stood between 10,000 and 10,500 — an affordable and manageable population for the current size and capacity of the Greek prison system. Further, police officers were subjected to strict disciplinary control. Actions amounting to torture or other insults to human dignity incurred the penalty of dismissal. The Greek Ombudsman, an independent authority, had been designated as the national mechanism for the investigation of arbitrary incidents allegedly committed by law enforcement personnel. All persons deprived of liberty were treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person: they were informed of their rights and allowed to establish contact with their legal representatives and family members; particular attention was given to the situation of vulnerable persons.
Police officers were given specific instructions and orders regarding the protection of the fundamental rights of migrants and refugees, paying special attention to vulnerable groups. All the procedures that fell under the responsibility of the Hellenic Police were implemented in accordance with national and international law. Within this framework, officials of the Hellenic Police were constantly monitored and evaluated by the chain of command.
Greece remained under a disproportionate migratory pressure, despite the significant decrease of flows following the European Union-Turkey Statement of 18 March 2016. The Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs had enacted the framework for the institution of guardianship of unaccompanied and separated minors. Other necessary legislative regulations were being forwarded to facilitate the full implementation of the guardianship of unaccompanied minors. The Hellenic Coast Guard deployed enormous efforts during emergency situations at sea, with a focus on the protection of vulnerable individuals or groups. A new curriculum included a specific module for the protection of fundamental rights and a chapter on the prevention of torture. Greece pursued a comprehensive and victim-centred action plan to combat trafficking in persons. On gender issues, there had been significant steps taken by the Government, such as the emphasis on support for women belonging to vulnerable social groups, including refugees. As far as the fight against racism was concerned, a robust legislative framework had been created.
Questions by the Country Co-Rapporteurs
DIEGO RODRÍGUEZ-PINZÓN, Committee Member and Country Co-Rapporteur for Greece, started by welcoming the representatives of the State party. He welcomed the participation of various State and other entities in the preparation of the report. Starting with the definition of torture, he said multiple sources had told the Committee that Parliament had voted on the complete text of the new penal code in June 2019 which would render it incompatible with the Convention. The Committee was particularly concerned about the requirement that suffering be inflicted in a “planned manner,” which excessively reduced the scope of the crime of torture and seemed to limit its applicability to situations and instances where the practice was systematic, thus excluding isolated cases of torture. This contravened the provisions of the Convention.
On legal safeguards, he said that it seemed that they were not implemented sufficiently. A number of foreign detained persons were not informed of their rights or the reasons of their detention in a language that they could understand, according to the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture. There were situations in which lawyers advised their clients not to report abuse. There was no system of regular medical visits to examine patients in police stations. Detainees failed to receive adequate information on existing complaint mechanisms to which they had access. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture said that several foreign persons that it had interviewed had not been able to contact a lawyer or family members, and had not been entitled to access to a doctor throughout the detention period. Access to a lawyer was dependent on the defendant having the financial means to hire one, leaving those who did not without judicial support. Mr. Rodríguez-Pinzón asked what measures, legislative or otherwise, had the State party adopted to implement the recommendations of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture regarding legal safeguards.
Were all detained persons registered from the outset of the detention? He asked how the right to be brought before a judge without delay was implemented. He sought clarification on the status of the Criminal Procedure Code. What had led the committee responsible for drafting it to refrain from modifying the maximum length of pre-trial detention, notably that of minors? What measures was the Government implementing to address the scarcity of penitentiary centres, which was preventing it from complying with rules regarding the separation of different types of prisoners?
The Committee had received information on the excessive use of force, notably against unaccompanied minors. He asked the delegation to comment on the persistence of such instances of excessive violence and indicate what measures were being adopted to ensure this would not continue. Could the delegation provide updated information on the criminal proceedings against the perpetrators of the assassination of 15-year-old Alexis Gregoropoulos? He also asked if the victim’s family had received compensation and reparation.
Turning to gender-based violence, Mr. Rodríguez-Pinzón requested information on steps undertaken by the State party to address this issue, notably to combat sexual and domestic violence; establish evaluation mechanisms; ensure that victims could fully exercise their right to denounce such violence before courts and receive abortion services and post-exposure prophylaxis, amongst others; and put in place additional security measures in the islands, or hotspots, to prevent gender-based and sexual violence. The Committee would also need information on human trafficking, including up-to-date statistical information on this practice, including on the number of prosecutions related to sexual exploitation and forced labour.
What measures had been adopted to prevent the pushback of individuals who may wish to seek asylum, asked Mr. Rodríguez-Pinzón. Had the monitoring of officials exercising control over the borders in the Evros region been strengthened in light of reports of informal forced returns? He asked the delegation to indicate the reasons why administrative investigations did not include alleged victims or complainants. It was preoccupying that the applicable asylum system in the hotspots differed from the one that was in place on the continent. The Committee had received information to the effect that, in the context of the European Union-Turkey agreement, individuals from certain countries were automatically detained to be deported because they came from “pre-determined countries” that were deemed to produce “economic migrants” rather than refugees. Such “pre-determination” amounted to presumption against the asylum request. The Committee wanted to know if this was indeed how the State party proceeded. Mr. Rodríguez-Pinzón also requested information on diplomatic assurances.
ABDELWAHAB HANI, Committee Member and Country Co-Rapporteur for Greece, noted that the report had been submitted with a slight delay. The Committee would like Greece to make up for that delay in the presentation of future reports. He asked for information about the training programmes put in place so that all individuals who were involved in the implementation of the law understood their responsibilities with regard to the prevention of torture and ill-treatment. Had an evaluation of this training been conducted? Regarding the memorandum of understanding that the Government had signed with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe on the training of prosecutors, could the delegation provide the Committee with updated information? The Committee echoed concerns expressed by non-governmental organizations regarding the implementation of the Istanbul Protocol, notably in hotspots. Could the delegation provide information on the training programmes for law-enforcement officials that dealt with the Mandela Rules and the Istanbul Protocol?
Had there been an evaluation of the implementation of the European Union-Turkey agreement in light of the State party’s obligations under international law? The national prevention mechanismdid not seem to have enough resources to fully implement the Optional Protocol. How did the Government intend to overcome this lack of human and financial resources? Within the Ombudsman’s office, were there staff members working on prevention issues and carrying out preventive work?
Mr. Hani asked how the Government ensured the cooperation and coordination of the three mechanisms working on the deprivation of liberty. How did the Government ensure that their interlinked work met its obligations under international law? He requested information about the involvement of civil society organizations in monitoring practices as well as on the announced and unannounced visits conducted in detention centres, including those where migrants were held. Turning to overcrowding issues, he asked for information on transfers to rural prisons and the way in which the efficiency of this measure had been evaluated.
Could the delegation provide statistics on the detention of minorities and additional information on the detention of foreigners and asylum seekers, in light of allegations that the latter were systematically detained? According to some figures, the reception and identification centres for asylum seekers held twice as many persons as they had been designed to. Could the delegation comment on these numbers and give the Committee an idea of the average duration of detention in these centres? The deplorable living conditions of migrants amounted to a form of unacceptable treatment. How was the State party addressing this issue?
Citing the principle of the “right to hope” put forth in the European Court of Human Rights decision, Mr. Hani asked about the number of people who had been condemned to life sentences. Turning to mental health, he requested information on the transfer of patients to community-based centres, which had been enacted following the adoption of a circular in November 2018. Had the Government examined other similar policies implemented in other countries, such as South Africa? It was important that such practices did not lead the State party to shirk its responsibility. Could civil society organizations visit psychiatric institutions? How did the State ensure that non-governmental organizations with which it had partnered had the scientific and technical expertise to provide adequate mental care? It was important to avoid the mistakes that had been made in South Africa.
The frequent use of certain interrogation techniques had been criticized by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture. How was the State party addressing this situation? Mr. Hani sought clarifications on the efficacy of the complaint system, and asked for statistics on the number of complaints filed and their outcome. He also enquired about the assistance offered to victims of torture. Did the State party intend to contribute to the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture? Were victims of torture or ill-treatment able to seek reparation in the country? Odious crimes should not fall under statutes of limitations. Given that a high percentage of migrants and asylum seekers had been victims of torture (up to 35 per cent of the global migrant population according to Doctors without Borders), had the State party taken steps to provide this segment of the population with rehabilitation services?
Mr. Hani noted that there was no criminalization of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. He asked for statistics or information on instances where judges had discarded information that had been obtained through torture. Were there adequately trained doctors who acted as experts in judicial proceedings in the context of which allegations of torture were made?
He asked if training on the Convention was provided to personnel interacting with persons with disabilities and if the national prevention mechanism conducted visits to institutions where they stayed. Pointing that there was a trend of criminalization of solidarity, he requested information on steps taken by the State party to address the intimidation of humanitarian workers. He also expressed concern about discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons and Roma persons.
Questions by Other Committee Members
Other Committee Members asked information on torture and abuse by police officers, notably during demonstrations, and practices targeting minorities held in detention; the detention of adults alongside juveniles; the way in which body cavity searches were conducted and the use of electronic tools in that context; as well as on violence against Roma and refugees, the increase in such attacks involving law enforcement officials, and the way in which they were prosecuted.
Replies by the Delegation
The delegation, addressing the issue of legal safeguards, explained that all detained persons, as soon as they were taken to the police station, were fully informed of the reasons of their detention, as well as of the rights they could exercise during their detention. If the detained person was a foreign national who did not understand the Greek language, care was taken to explain their rights to them in the most appropriate way. The Hellenic Police ensured that detained persons could establish telephone and personal communications with their lawyer. Regarding the issue of registration of detainees, it must be understood that all persons who were detained were fully registered as per internal regulations, the implementation of which was constantly monitored by heads of services. With regard to allegations of excessive use of force,the police undertook investigations into complaints made by foreign citizens, whether they were detained or not, if they alleged ill-treatment, affront to their personality, or physical abuse by police officers. Turning to the use of chemical products by the police during demonstrations, the delegation said that it should be noted that the decision had been made to use tear gas rationally and not abusively, in full respect of the principle of necessity. It was only used in open spaces when it was considered absolutely necessary.
When foreigners were in police custody, they were required to be escorted by the police when circulating outside of places of detention. Any allegations of breach of the non-refoulement principle were thoroughly investigated. Body searches were sometimes necessary, such as when electronic detectors were not available. The role of the police was to preserve peace and bring before justice any person who behaved in an unlawful manner. On ethnic profiling, the delegation explained that, in Greece, there was only one recognized religious minority, people of Muslim faith.
Moving on to the definition of torture, the delegation said that for there to be torture as per the Greek law, it must be proved that the crime had been committed for specific purposes such as obtaining a confession, a testimony, information or punishing the victim or intimidating them or any other third parties. The Greek legislation’s requirement for the acts to be carried out in a methodical manner could correspond to the term “with intent” used in article 1 of the Convention. Regarding penalties, the delegation said that the crime of torture continued to be punished with the same degree of severity even though the overall length of imprisonment had changed — it was now 5 to 15 years as opposed to 5 to 20 years in the previous version of the Penal Code. Under Greek law, the crime of torture was subject to a statute of limitations of 15 years, except for cases where the acts of torture led to the death of the victim, in which case it was 20 years. As in many other countries, the main reason for this provision was the principle of legal certainty. A special provision of the Penal Code stipulated that the victim of acts of torture and ill-treatment was entitled to seek from the irrevocably convicted person, as well as from the State, compensation for the damages suffered, the mental suffering incurred and property damage. The penal case of Alexis Grigoropoulos was on its way to completion. After using the available remedies, his family had finally reached a settlement with the State — approximately 1 million euros.
Pre-trial detention was only imposed as a measure of last resort. Its duration or extension was obligatorily re-examined by judicial authorities every six months or upon the prisoner’s request. It could never exceed 18 months. For children aged 15 to 18 years, the time-limit was 6 months. Rules on the separation and categorization of prisoners according to their legal status were still not implemented due to insufficiency of the prison system structure. Further, other separation needs had been prioritized, namely sex, age, ethnicity, health and religion. Prison and probation officer training included human rights issues, in line with the United Nations and the Council of Europe’s rules and recommendations. For the prison staff, particular attention was given to the Nelson Mandela rules. On overcrowding, it was common knowledge that the number of prisoners had been reduced by 20 per cent over the 2014-2017 period, and then stabilized at approximately 10,000 persons. The reduced number of prisoners had contributed to the improvement of everyday living conditions, in combination with the implementation of various educational, vocational, therapeutic, athletic, cultural and other constructive activities for prisoners. In addition, measures improving prisoners’ social contacts (conjugal visits, children’s visits, teleconferencing, etc.) were gradually being implemented.
All prisons services used electronic metal detectors and drug urine tests to search prisoners, staff and visitors, as alternatives to invasive body searches. When indications existed that illicit substances or objects were hidden in a prisoner’s body, the concerned prisoner was transferred to a public hospital to undergo the necessary examinations.
Prisoners with disabilities were eligible for early conditional release on the basis of their disability. Those of them with serious mobility problems and incapacities were treated at the Korydallos prison hospital while in detention. Prisoners were transferred to agricultural prisons exclusively upon their request and for work purposes only. The treatment in such semi-open conditions had not been evaluated yet.
Since 2011, Greece had proceeded to overhauling the country’s asylum system, as reflected in its national legislation and operational capacity. Over 1 million refugees had crossed through Greece. The flows had significantly decreased following the European Union-Turkey Statement of 18 March 2016. However, it was worth noting that Greece remained under disproportionate migratory pressure. The Asylum Service had registered approximately 235,000 applications for international protection as of 30 June 2019. The average recognition rate for refugee status and subsidiary status stood at almost 44 per cent. Third country nationals or stateless persons held in detention facilities or present at border crossing points — including transit zones and external borders — received information on the possibility to submit an application for international protection. There, interpretation services were provided as it was necessary to facilitate access to the asylum procedure.
The safe third country concept corresponded to specific articles of the Asylum Procedure Directive as they had been transposed into Greek legislation. It did not lead to automatic detention. Fair and impartial treatment was guaranteed for all asylum seekers, on the basis of specific criteria and timeframes.
On gender-based violence, the delegation said that women suffering from multiple discrimination, in particular refugee women, benefitted from first line services, including psycho-social support, legal counselling and accommodation. As of July 2019, 612 refugee women had benefited from the services of the counselling centres; and 44 migrant women and 54 children had found safe accommodation in the Network Shelters. The General Secretariat had established a bilateral partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Greece, which had led to, inter alia, a memorandum of understanding for joint actions to protect refugee women and children at risk, and the translation of the shelters’ documents in Arabic, Farsi, French, Urdu and Sorani. Furthermore, following Greece’s ratification of the Istanbul Convention in 2017, the law on domestic violence had been amended to improve its implementation.
Unaccompanied minors were moved to special accommodation facilities either on the islands or on the mainland, based on the availability of places. Given the urgency of their protection needs, Greece was currently in the process of creating many more accommodation centres, especially for minors. Various recreational and educational activities were organized with a view to offer them opportunities to learn and grow. Regarding reports of doctors refusing to perform abortions on the islands, the delegation stated that no specific provisions applied on the islands; the general Greek law was applied throughout the country. While some doctors had refused to carry out abortions on grounds of conscience, it was not the general practice and there was no discriminatory approach to migrant and refugee women.
Regarding involuntary hospitalization, a Ministry of Health Circular from November 2018 stipulated that all injuries suffered by the patients must be registered in each patient’s medical record as well as in a specific record; the doctor examining the patient had to describe the injury mentioning if, in their view, it was indicative of possible ill-treatment or inter-patient violence; and the director of the hospital must bring to the attention of the relevant prosecutor all aforementioned medical reports.
Hellenic Coast Guard officers received training which included a specific module on the protection of human rights and a chapter about the prevention of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. This training also included a presentation and analysis of the Convention, focusing on methods that could be used to recognize victims of torture through the observation of behavioural and physical indicators. The Hellenic Coast Guard was also actively participating in the Train of Trainers initiative, which was coordinated by Frontex, and aimed to enhance human rights capacities through the development of a pool of accredited experts that delivered training to other staff members.
Follow-up Questions by Country Co-Rapporteurs
DIEGO RODRÍGUEZ-PINZÓN, Committee Member and Country Co-Rapporteur for Greece, said the definition of torture had been targeted by recent reform efforts in Greece. The notion of “planning” torture was problematic. It may result in limiting the application of the relevant legal provisions. He asked the delegation to clarify under which conditions rape could amount to torture under Greek law, and the meaning of “methods” or “methodical” in the Penal Code. Turning to the registration of detainees, he asked if there was a control system in place to ensure the law was applied. Was there a central database?
It was important to see the State as a whole, and avoid laying blame at the feet of one entity or the other. How was the State ensuring that the privacy of detainees was respected in hospitals? Noting that various agencies were involved in border control activities in Greece, he asked what was the specific role of Frontex. On extraditions, he requested figures and information on the countries involved. He reiterated that the situation in the hotspots was of great concern and required urgent action to prevent people who were already vulnerable from suffering from gender-based violence.
ABDELWAHAB HANI, Committee Member and Country Co-Rapporteur for Greece, noting that the delegation had said that the situation in the hotspot tents was under control, asked which standards had been used to reach such a conclusion. What methods were used for calculating tents’ capacity? He asked about measures, such as guarantees of non-repetition, that had been taken following the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights to address the harassment of humanitarian workers. Highlighting the difficult detention conditions faced by children, he requested the delegation to comment and provide more information on that matter. Regarding the 18 March 2016 European Union-Turkey Statement, he asked for information about safeguards against refoulement, and collective refoulement. What methods were used to calculate the capacity for hosting on islands? He requested information on plans to improve data collection concerning compensation and reparations.
How did the State party approach article 3 of the Convention? Did it take this article and the Committee’s case law in consideration when deciding on extraditions? He asked to what extent the State party’s “special procedure” met the Convention’s requirements and if the State party intended to include the Committee’s case law in the training provided to civil servants?
Follow-up Questions by Other Committee Members
Other Committee Members asked for information about allegations of police violence, notably against children.
Replies by the Delegation
The delegation recalled that the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights were legally binding. With regard to individual cases, the Government was following the situation closely. The Government had appointed the Ombudsperson to review cases of allegations of abuse by policemen; it was a very effective body to prevent such abuse. The authors of the complaints filed with the Human Rights Committee could benefit from settlements outside of the courts, a remedy which had not been used by the individuals mentioned by the Committee Members. There had been few recent similar cases.
Registration at the hotspots and registration at police stations were two different things, the delegation underscored. The registration of migrants was only amended when it was absolutely necessary. There was no reason to amend registration records at police stations in principle; when it was done, the chain of command had to be informed. Regarding police violence, to provide security, additional staff had been sent to the hotspots. These additional deployments were a burden for the national budget. On pushbacks, the national authorities enjoyed full powers at the borders, notably exclusive power on return operations. European authorities sought to enhance the Greek authorities’ capacities. Frontex had an internal complaint mechanism, to monitor the implementation of fundamental rights in the context of border operations.
The delegation stressed that the bilateral readmission protocol that Greece had signed with Turkey was separate and different from the 2016 European Union-Turkey Statement. On non-refoulement, the delegation said that, when it came to readmissions and returns, decisions were made on a case-by-case basis. On police violence against minors, from the Hellenic police’s perspective, there had been no intention to act in an improper manner. If there had been cases of minors who had been beaten up with batons, the delegation said it was important to understand that when faced with rioters covering their faces, it was not possible for the police to know precisely with whom they were dealing before apprehending them.
PANOS ALEXANDRIS, Secretary General for Justice and Human Rights, Ministry of Justice of Greece, thanked the Committee. The dialogue had been frank, open and constructive. The delegation was looking forward to receiving the Committee’s concluding observations, which would be carefully examined and taken into consideration in the development of human rights policies.
JENS MODVIG, Committee Chairperson, thanked the delegation for the replies and the diligent manner in which they had been provided. Three of the most urgent recommendations would be identified by the Committee for follow-up within a year, he added.
Consideration of Greece – 1761st Meeting, 67th Session of Committee Against Torture (24 July 2019)