Monday to Tuesday: How do you mitigate the risks of sanctions/reprisals?

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Monday to Tuesday: How do you mitigate the risks of sanctions/reprisals?

The conversation leaders will focus on this discussion topic on Monday and Tuesday.

What is understood by “sanctions”? (information used from the APT website)

The term of “reprisals” is frequently used to describe punishment practices inflicted by guards or detaining authorities against detainees who have reported to independent monitors. However, “reprisal” being defined as an act of revenge or retaliation, is neither exact nor precise, since the effects suffered by individuals subjected to torture and other ill-treatment do not result from committing an “offence” supposedly justifying a revenge or a punishment. Therefore, the APT prefers to use a more generic but also more adequate term, “sanction”, which is also the wording used in articles 15 and 21 of the OPCAT, describing any punishment resulting from mere contact with an independent monitor.

To help start the conversation and keep the focus of this discussion thread, please consider and respond to the following questions:

  • How have you tried to mitigate the risks of sanctions/reprisals following prison/detention monitoring visits?
  • What worked well? What didn’t work well?
  • What lessons have you learned? What challenges have you faced?
  • What resources have you found helpful related to this topic?

Share your experiences, thoughts, ideas and questions by adding a comment below or replying to existing comments!

For help on how to participate in this conversation, please check out these online instructions.

Dear all,

Dear all,

Hello from Geneva, Switzerland. My name is Tanya Norton and i am working at the Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT) in the Detention and Monitoring Programme.

Since APT foundation in 1977, the APT has promoted the regular and independent monitoring of places of detention as an effective means for prevention of torture and ill-treatment in detention. However, monitoring activities can be two sided, as detained individuals and others are sometimes punished by sanctions for their mere contact with an independent monitor. In your view, how can these be avoided? What strategies have you applied in your context?

I am very much looking forward to this public conversation and to hear your experiences from all over the world. For a resource on this topic, please see APT Briefing Paper No4: Mitigating the risks of sanctions related to detention monitoring at





Dear all,

Thanks for kicking off the discussion. For persons monitoring places of detention, the risk of reprisals or sanctions is something that we constantly need to have at the back of our minds before, during and after the monitoring visit, and we need to be extremely careful not to expose persons deprived of their liberty to any such risks. However, even when we take all the neccesary precautions, the risk of sancions is still present. 

In my experience, one of the most effective ways of minimising this risk is to carry up follow-up visits shortly after the monitoring visit, and to inform the detaining authorities that this measure will be taken. Now, the question is what if we discover - during the follow-up visit - that one of the inmates whom we spoke to during the initial visit has been subjected to torture (as a sanction)? Will we raise this issue with the detaining authorities, if we receive the informed consent of the victim? Or will this place the victim at additional risk? If so, then how do we deal with the knowledge that sanctions have taken place? What steps can we take to prevent future sanctions vis-à-vis this victim and other potential victims? 


Therese Rytter    

Liberia's Experiences of Sanctions against inmates and Monitors

Heloo everyone, I am Jarwlee Tweh Geegbe, from Liberia with over 15 years of experience in monitoring prisons and detention facilities in Liberia.

My experience is a seesaw one. Earlier in my work, in the early 90s in between the civil wars in Liberia, I was  opened to the notion that entering the prisons and place of detention without modestation was common and easy. We had an impcating regular visits there helping and raising issues of conditions at detention facilities. It went bad in the late 90s to early 2000s, during the rule of Charles Taylor that we were closely monitored during and sometimes harrassed and detained briefly as tactics of fear and eventually permenently barred from entering any prison or detention centre in Liberia. We were threatened with disappearance whenever we engage and raise issues of detention conditions with authorities. There also reports of reprisals from prisons officers toward inmates and relatives with threats and sometimes flogged for speaking to us.

However, as the need for information was needed, there were other measures put in place to still collect information from the prisons and detention facilities. We used family members, friends of detainees and corroborated the informations and verified by sending other volunteers (that were unknown to the prisons officers) to act as family members. The reports were not released in country as we were closely monitored by state securities. Most of our reports were send out to publish with no trace to us.

You asked how can these be avioded, it is not possible to be aviode as the information of the condition of detention and discourage torture at prison have to continue and autocratic governments will not appreciate. For sanctions against inmates, we needed to spend more time in prisons and speak to as many as we can to erase the track to a few inmates that they see you speak with during the visits. Speaking a few will risk them. Or have the report published in a long space of intervals between the visit and the report.

Tactics to mitigate risk of reprisal

Thank you for sharing your experience, Jarwlee! This is so helpful. From your comment, I see a number of tactics that you have used to mitigate the risk of reprisal:

  1. Get information from other sources, beyond the detained individual (their family, friends, etc) - this point is also shared by Edel in this comment
  2. Speak to as many detained individuals as possible so that no one stands out - this point is also shared by Miha in this comment

And you bring up a tactic to protect the monitors themselves:

  • Publish your docmentation anonymously so that your monitors do not risk reprisal

It would be great to hear from you and others:

  • What challenges did you face in implementing these tactics?
  • Are there any lessons that you learned in implementing these tactics that you can share here? For example, when you realized you had to reach as many inmates as possible, what approach worked or didn't work? How many monitors did you need?


Kristin Antin - New Tactics Online Community Builder

Dear Ms. Tanya

Dear Ms. Tanya

Warm greetings from the Philippines! This discussion is very relevant to us as we are have been discussing ways to make punishments or sanctions in detention are prevented. The more utilize strategy is vigilance through reporting. The detainees themselves informed NGOs the status of detainees through the mobile available in jails or through their detainees' family meber who visit the detainees and that detainee who request his/her family to inform NGOs that there is this detainee who was punished and need to be visited for documentation and treatment.

I know these is the common way but still effective. Congratulations on this discussion and we know we can learn a lot from this.



Hi all,

Hi all,

it is not difficult to imagine it being possible that 'detained individuals' would be punished by some kind of sanctions for their mere contact with an independent monitor. However, in practice of the Slovenian NPM, this has not emerged as a very topical issue so far. I suppose this has to do for the most part with our way of us conducting interviews with detainees/convicts in prisons; our (general) modus operandi there is as follows:

  • divide into groups of two or three NPM representatives (in each at least one representative of the Ombudsman and at least one representative of NGOs)
  • seperate groups go to seperate blocks at the same time
  • seperate groups in certain block go cell by cell and do the interviews with detainees/convicts (in short, the guard unlocks the doors, the Ombudsman representative introducts the group and the NPM (still at the enrty) to persons deprived of their liberty in the cell, and then asks politely (persons deprived of their liberty, not the guards, of course), if it is alright to come in; after getting the 'approval', a more thorough presentation of the NPM follows inside the cell and behind the closed (but not locked) doors, and then the interview(s) follow.

This way one covers the whole prison, i.e. all persons deprived of their liberty there - this more or less takes punishing the individual for "mere contact with an independent monitor" out of the equation for the authorities, or at least 'distributes the responsibility' of detainees/convicts for being in contact with the monitor.

As you can see, I said "more or less" in the paragraph above - it is not necessarily enough to prevent 'consequences' for talking to the monitor in case of every single individual; some have specific issues - so specific, that in this regard, the authorities would be able to recognise who told what to whom. In such cases we seek consent from the individual for us presenting his/her complaints to the authorities (as an example of a possibly broader issue).

Another obstacle of this approach is that some individuals seem to be quite reserved in the presence of others - and taking her/him out to a seperate room pretty much negates the positive aspect of the methods presented above. We try to solve this by one member of the NPM group talking to the 'more willing' individual(s) in the cell (which is at the same time distracting them), while the remaining memeber tries to make the reserved individual open up, seeing that the 'the others are not hearing' what he/her (perhaps) has to say.

As a side note: we also tried a little different approach a few times - certain NPM groups went on through the prison blocks to check out living conditions and had 'general talks' with the present detainees/convicts, while the others conducted interviews in 'talking rooms' with randomly picked (from a list) individuals; this did not function too well, however, as majority of them were giving the impression of uninterestedness (despite the privacy), some even appeared to be quite annoyed, actually, that they were 'summoned', etc.

For more, ask away...

Dear all,

Dear all,

When posting a comment please can you introduce yourself, specifying your background and context.

Many thanks to Edel, Miha, Therese and Jarwlee for sharing very practical strategies for preventing sanctions. It is clear that this issue is particularly complex and sensitive and requires careful thought and handling in all phases of detention monitoring (before, during and after the visit). Your experiences highlight the fact that there are a variety of strategies possible which depend on the situation.  In all cases, the concept of anonymity, camouflage and “Do no harm” principle should be kept in mind at all times.

Thank you Jarwlee for sharing with us the strategy in Liberia to collect information thanks to family members and friends of detainees. This is indeed a very useful source of information. One of the ways to protect relatives (who can also be subject to sanctions) is to offer advice on their rights as they are not always aware as well as support to enable them to claim their rights (see APT Briefing Paper No4, p8,

Several comments have focused on strategies during a visit and the importance of conducting interviews with as many people as possible in groups and in private.

In general terms, group interviews/talks may be good to observe visible dynamics between inmates and to enquire about non-sensitive issues, such as material conditions and access to work, education or medical services. Moreover, group interviews may be an adequate avenue to select inmates for (invitation) to a private interview. However it is vital to always be aware of the risk of informants in group interviews and that collective sanctions are not unheard of. The team’s experience with the institution and its authorities, as well as its ability to follow-up with a further visit, will inform this decision.

With regard to speaking to as many people as possible in very small places such as police stations APT recommends “the all or nothing approach” meaning that monitors choose either to interview all persons deprived of their liberty or none. This touches on the importance of having an internal strategy to prevent sanctions and minimise risks for detainees - and others - that participate in monitoring interviews. In this case the “before the visit” preparation can provide an opportunity for assessing risks and adopting a strategy to address them even before the visit. It would be interesting to hear from others as to whether you have developed an internal strategy in your context?

I shall stop hear for now and look forward in hearing from others around the world!

Actions to take before a monitoring visit

Thanks, Tanya! I just wanted to highlight for others how useful that APT briefing paper on mitigating the risk of sanctions is. The paper includes information on what kinds of sanctions and reprisals are possible, what impact this has on individuals, and a wealth of information on tactics for preventing sanctions (actions to take before the visit, during the visit and after the visit). This paper is available in English, French, Arabic, Spanish, Russian and Turkish.

One section of this document that stood out to me that relates to your comment above, Tanya, is on actions to take before the visit:

  • Develop an internal strategy for the prevention of sanctions.
  • Establish clear guidelines for reporting individual cases of deliberate ill-treatment, requesting inquiries and guaranteeing the confidentiality against sanctions.
  • Establish a specific policy setting out the types of information that can be collected during group interviews and the types of information that should be collected only during interviews in private.
  • Collect relevant information from other actors, including NGOs working directly or indirectly with inmates.

It would be great to learn about the guidelines, strategies, and policies you all have created!

- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder



Dear all,

It’s Andrea Huber from Penal Reform International.

I just wanted to draw your attention to discussions I am aware of at the level of international bodies who speak to victims of violations and have the same issue - sad and not surprisingly.

I wanted to share with you some of the things that the Special Rapporteur on Torture and the Chair of the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture shared at a side event during last autumn’s General Assembly, hosted jointly by the mission of Denmark and APT.

Malcolm Evans, Chair of the SPT reflected on visits of his Committee, and flagged that the problem is not even only reprisals from prison staff, but sometimes also from fellow detainees, in countries that have a culture of ‘inter-prisoner governance system’. He reported on some of the problems international bodies are facing due the shortness of their visit and the fact that they cannot come back a couple of days or weeks later, and also how this makes it difficult to interview a large sample of interviewees, and he stressed that national level actors such as NPMs or other monitoring bodies and NHRIs have a key role and are well placed to do so due to their permanent presence and since they can do follow-up visits.

He said that at times, visiting bodies may need to think twice on whether interviews with detainees are even preventing torture and ill-treatment, or rather resulting in it, and hence using methods other than interviewing detainees might be a better choice at times. 

One more thought which isn't new of course, but to not forget it in the mix of strategies. Sometimes, it might be possible to interview former (!) detainees and find out about concerns in a particular place of detention, making it less traceable and reducing the risk of reprisals – depending on the country and context, and of course the preparedness of them to speak up…

And then, as Jarwlee has pointed out there's the risk of reprisals for members of monitoring bodies themselves, who come under pressure to say the least, like other human rights defenders. On this one, I think I would like to flag this organisation:

We have also been wondering whether some inspiration can be drawn from measures established to protect human rights defenders and witnesses in procedures at the International Criminal Court?

And lastly, there is a report of the UN Secretary General on Cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights (A/HRC/21/18), it reflects more on the protection of human rights defenders – not particularly on how monitoring bodies can reduce and manage reprisals detainees face who talk to them.

Really is an issue that can't be over-thought...! 

Take care,


Thanks Andrea for sharing the

Thanks Andrea for sharing the thoughts of the Sub Committee on the Prevention of Torture (SPT) on this.

I would just like to flag that the summary record of the public part of the Committee Against Torture (CAT)  49th session in November 2012 are available on APT website at

Mr.Taylor Souto (SPT member) talked about sanctions in paragraph 14:


14. Mr. Taylor Souto (Subcommittee) noted that the Optional Protocol employed the

broader term “sanction” rather than “reprisals”. A fear of reprisals had been noted during

the majority of visits undertaken by the Subcommittee. Various types of reprisals had been

noted – threats, placement in isolation and ill-treatment, which was particularly worrying

since the aim of the Subcommittee was to prevent torture and ill-treatment. In such

situations the Subcommittee made contact with the prison or police authorities and raised

concerns with higher authorities, such as ministries. In some cases concerns had also been

expressed in writing and had been presented orally at the end of country visits. National

preventive mechanisms, or where appropriate civil society organizations, were sometimes

asked to follow up Subcommittee visits, and during country visits the Subcommittee

delegation had, on occasion, returned to places where it was suspected reprisals might have

occurred following their initial visit. There were plans to draft a public policy document on

sanctions and reprisals. The Subcommittee was not aware of any reprisals against national

preventive mechanisms.

Today and tomorrow's session are focusing on women but please feel free to continue posting on this issue throughout the week! All the best.


Dear all

its Mari Amos rom SPT, UN torture prevention body.

As SPT has been quoted here already several times, I add something regarding the topic as well.

Certainly preventing reprisals is easier for national monitoring bodies than international ones. Reason is that national monitors can allocate more time and use it more purposefully than international bypassers. Therefore all precautions can be taken into account more efficiently.

Well, I see from above that several ways are mentioned how to minimise the risk of reprisals. Not necessarily, I must say, are all of those efficient. Certainly we can and are ought to always draw attention on the PoD, local authorities etc about the fact that reprisals should not be tolerated. But that is often just a routine reminder. So it is for the visiting body to take all actual measures for preventing the problem. One of the main tools is certainly taking enough time in the PoD that allows to talk to good and representative sample of detainees as well as personnel. This means certainly different groups of age, sex, nationality, ethnic background, time spent in PoD and regarding the personnel different ranks, positions etc etc. But at the same time number of interviewed within those subgroups should be representative as well and also allowing those taking part in interviews remain anonomys. In case there are only few representatives in certain groups in the PoD it should be given a thought if to interview them and on the basis of information gained to give feedback will do more good or harm.

There are certainly some advantages in doing group discussions. But on the other hans it is not only reprisals and sanctions from the administration's side we should prevent with our interruptions but also from fellow detainees. So actually group interviewing could carry risk of reprisals among detainees as well as still information can leak to administration about volunteers, information passed etc. So I would not encourage too much of group interviews.

One of the things one should avoid is using other detainees as translators. This I have seen happening actually in many places. Specially such a problem exists f.e in expulsion and immigation centres. This is excellent oportunity for third persons to gain confidential information.

All the best

Mari Amos

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