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Iran: Televised Confessions Raise Questions About British Detainees

By Jeremy Bransten

April 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The legal codes and constitutions of most countries -- at least on paper -- protect detainees from psychological and physical abuse.

In this respect, Iran is no exception.

Iran has detained 15 British sailors and marines for allegedly violating its state border. But its television broadcasts of the detainees -- especially the broadcasts of confessions -- has some arguing they are being treated more like hostages.

Iranian Legislation

Article 39 of the Iranian Constitution states that "all affronts to the dignity and repute of persons arrested, detained, imprisoned, or banished" are forbidden.

Article 38 of Iran's constitution states that "compulsion of individuals to testify, confess, or take an oath is not permissible; and any testimony, confession, or oath obtained under duress is devoid of value or credence."

Britain and the European Union, which backs London, argue that extracting videotaped confessions from captive foreigners, who have no inkling of whether or when they will be allowed to return home, violates the prohibitions against duress and affront to dignity.

In addition, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights -- which Iran ratified in 1975 -- mandates that anyone arrested shall be informed of the reasons for their arrest and have prompt access to judicial authorities.

It appears the Iranian authorities are mindful of those provisions, which might explain why they have gone to such lengths to show the captive British sailors being fed in a pleasant setting -- and why the "confession" of Faye Turney, one of the captives, stressed the hospitality shown by the Iranian authorities.

"Obviously we trespassed into their waters," Turney said on Iranian television. "They were very friendly, very hospitable, very thoughtful, nice people. They explained to us why we'd been arrested. There was no aggression, no hurt, no harm. They were very, very compassionate."

International Standards

Compassion, however, is in the eye of the beholder.

Which is why most modern legal systems require detainees to have immediate access to a lawyer and to appear before a judge soon after their detention -- so that their case can be heard by an impartial judiciary.

The right of habeas corpus -- that is, to have a judge rule on the legality of someone's detention -- dates back centuries and is enshrined in the laws of many countries.

When it comes to confessions, some countries go even further -- again, at least on paper -- to protect detainees' rights.

Under the Indian legal code, for example, no confession made to a police officer or while in police custody is admissible as evidence in a court of law.

In Mexico, to be admissible as evidence, confessions must be made to a judge and in the presence of a defense attorney.

In China, the legal code says that no one can be convicted on the basis of a confession alone.

Of course, as with the Soviet Constitution -- theory is one thing and practice another.

Iran, India, Mexico, and China all face frequent accusations by human rights organizations of violating detainees' rights and of extracting forced confessions as the basis for prosecution.

And the United States, with its decision to suspend habeas corpus for "enemy combatants" held at Guantanamo, has faced similar charges in recent years

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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