Efforts grow to end world's use of torture

An effort currently under way to stop the use of torture in many countries has one of its roots in this city. A small group of people here write letters to officials in nations where torture is reported to be used. They politely request that such action be stopped.

They are among the 500,000 worldwide members of Amnesty International (AI), a Nobel Peace Prize-winning group that in April launched a campaign against torture. AI officials say about one-third of the nations in the world persistently use torture against some prisoners.

In Congress, a joint resolution has just been introduced requiring the State Department to report more specifically instances of torture in any country. The measure, supported by AI, has bipartisan support and would have the effect of law if passed and signed by President Reagan.

Other longtime advocates for human rights see the resolution as little more than ''symbolic,'' because it provides no sanctions against nations using torture.

But they add that it would, if it becomes law, help spotlight use of torture. And this alone could lead to additional pressures from within the United States - and in some of the accused nations - to curtail use of torture, they say.

''One-third of the world's governments are using torture as a systematic tool against their people,'' says Jack Healey, executive director of the US section of Amnesty International, which has its headquarters in London.

Most of it occurs during periods of secret detention, when outsiders are not permitted contact with the prisoner, he says. Getting governments to shorten or end this period would reduce mistreatment, he adds.

While Turkey has lengthened the period it holds prisoners incommunicado, or secretly, some nations have moved against torture, Mr. Healey says. Greece has ''significantly reduced'' mistreatment of prisoners; Argentina has begun bringing to trial some people accused of torturing prisoners; and in Brazil, treatment of prisoners has improved, he says.

Financial and other types of aid to victims of torture should be increased by other nations and no nation should allow an accused torturer from another nation to be immune from prosecution, he adds. Such measures are not part of the resolution before Congress.

Because the resolution has no sanctions, it ''looks like a paper tiger. But these governments don't like to be named'' as using torture, Healey says. In recent testimony before Congress, he gave this partial list of nations about which AI receives ''persistent'' reports of torture: Afghanistan, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mexico, Namibia (South-West Africa), Pakistan, Paraguay, the Phillipines, Peru, the Republic of Korea, the Republic of South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Syria, Taiwan, Tunisia, Turkey, Uganda, Uruguay, the Soviet Union, Zaire, and Zimbabwe.

Since 1977, US law has required the cutoff of financial aid to nations found to be gross violators of human rights. Exceptions are provided for cases of national security or help to the needy.

Former US Rep. Donald Fraser (D) of Minnesota, who helped write the '77 measure, says it is effective only when an administration chooses to use it. ''A lot of torture goes on by rightist regimes,'' he says. ''It seems to me the (Reagan) administration has been quite silent about such abuses.''

No country has yet been designated as a gross violator of human rights under the law, which took effect during the Carter administrtion. But some forms of assistance have been cut off under other clauses of the law, says Fredrick Ashley, the security assistance officer in the State Department's human rights and humanitarian affairs division. Deciding when a nation's human-rights abuses constitute a ''pattern,'' as the law requires, is not easy, he says. But he adds that some loans have been ''disapproved'' to countries where it was determined they were developing a pattern of human-rights violations.

Where known, instances of torture already are being included in US embassy reports back to the State Department, he says, adding that the resolution before Congress may help highlight the topic.

The AI, which recently published a book titled ''Torture in the Eighties,'' is issuing bulletins on 12 countries said to be using torture. The first reports are on Turkey and Syria.

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