Canadian Comes Face to Face with Torture in Mauritania
Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada
June 24, 2013
"I came to study Arabic and the Koran. I have learned about torture and injustice."
- Canadian national Aaron Yoon, 24 years of age, interviewed in the Prison Civil, Nouakchott, Mauritania, June 2013.
Over the past ten days, as part of an Amnesty International mission in Mauritania I have spent many days interviewing prisoners in three prisons in the capital, Nouakchott. For years now, Amnesty International has documented serious and widespread torture in Mauritania and the research mission followed up on those and other human rights concerns.
Among many prisoners I interviewed in Nouakchott’s Prison Centrale, I heard much about torture from a young Canadian man, Aaron Yoon, who has been held here for the past 18 months. Aaron’s tale is a complicated and unusual one; which he realizes. He knows that many Canadians will have questions about the chain of events that brought him to this point. But he wants all to realize that he has been tortured and has been convicted on the basis of a blatantly unfair trial that gave him no opportunity to defend himself. As he said to me: "I hope people will not rush to judge me unless they give me a fair chance to respond to what is being said about me. It is terrible to be tortured. It makes you say what they want you to say."
|<< UPDATE: A Mauritanian appeal court ruled on Sunday 14 July that Aaron Yoon, a Canadian from London, Ontario should now be released from prison. Learn more|
The concerns about torture in Mauritania are widespread and longstanding, including in the cases of a growing number of prisoners held on charges related to terrorism or national security, but also with respect to minors, women and men detained on ordinary criminal charges. In fact, virtually no one is safe from torture when in the hands of the Mauritanian police.
The case of Aaron Yoon
An Amnesty International delegation was last in the Prison Centrale in June and July 2012. At that time a colleague of mine came across Aaron. Aaron was worried that his family in Canada would be deeply distressed if they learned he was in prison. He told Amnesty International that he had come to Mauritania to study Arabic and the Koran and he knew that they would have peace of mind thinking that was still what he was doing. He therefore asked that Amnesty not take up his case; a request that we of course honoured.
All of that changed dramatically earlier this year. Media reports, beginning with the CBC, revealed that two high school friends of Aaron’s, Ali Medlej and Xristos Katsiroubas, had been part of an armed group that mounted a terrorist attack at a gas plant in Algeria in January 2013; and that both had been killed when the plant was retaken. Reporters soon uncovered that Aaron was in prison in Mauritania and sought to make connections between him and his two friends. For several days in April the story, including the fact that Aaron had requested that Amnesty not work on his case, dominated Canadian news.
Our Amnesty delegation spoke with Aaron several times over the course of four separate visits to the Prison Centrale. He recounted the various twists and turns that had ended in a Mauritanian jail cell, beginning with Aaron, Ali and Chris’s leaving Canada in May 2011 to study Arabic and the Koran. They travelled first to Morocco and then continued on to Mauritania soon after. They studied first at a school in the capital; but then moved to a school in the small village of Naîm, some 100 kilometres outside Nouakchott.
Amnesty International delegation meets with Cheikh Yacoub, the director of the Islamic school or mahedra in Naîm where Aaron Yoon was studying at the time of his arrest.
We later had an opportunity to spend some time in Naîm and met with the director of that school or mahedra. He remembered Aaron and the 2 other Canadians and described them as being students like all others, pursuing a serious course of religious study. He told us he had been surprised and saddened to hear of what had happened to them.
According to Aaron, Ali and Chris didn’t stick it out in Naîm; leaving separately for Morocco and Lebanon soon after. Aaron continued with his studies.
Arrest and alleged torture
He was arrested in mid-December 2011, while he was back in the capital carrying out some errands. He was held first in police custody, before being transferred to prison. As is the case with so many prisoners, it was while he was in the hands of the police that he was tortured.
When they first began to question him he asked for a lawyer and a translator; and refused to answer any questions. He told me: “I couldn’t answer many of their questions without a translator anyway as my Arabic was still pretty basic at that time. Simply asserting those rights is what unleashed the torture. They were furious with me.”
He was beaten repeatedly for what he said seemed an eternity; off and on for close to one hour. He was kicked, punched and hit with sticks of wood. Eventually he lost consciousness. When he awoke he was alone, in the same room; a small cell in total darkness with no windows.
His tormentors soon returned. This time they tied his hands and feet behind his back, in an agonizing position that made him feel like his joints were going to pop. He was laid on the floor, stomach first, and the beating began again. It was not as long as the first session but the psychological effect was much stronger. He realized that this would never end unless he told them what they wanted. So he agreed to sign a statement which confirmed that he had been planning to go to Mali to join al-Qaeda. The statement itself, written in Arabic, was never read or translated to him. Prisoners being forced to sign statements without knowing the contents, after being tortured, is a pattern that Amnesty International has documented among the majority of prison interviews we have carried out over the past five years.
Even now the beatings still haunt him. He has particular memories of the crushing pain of the ring on the hand of the police officer who meted out the most vicious of the punches and slaps.
He was left in police custody for three weeks. There were no further beatings but while held his feet and ankles were cuffed and linked by a chain. The statement he signed has followed him everywhere since. Every official and every judge who has reviewed his case has relied on it.
Trial and appeal
He has had brief court appearances, for his trial and his appeal. Each time there have been no witnesses; and no evidence other than his statement (tainted by torture). He has had a court-appointed lawyer present on one occasion, but Aaron says the lawyer did not actively intervene in the proceedings to defend him.
When I met Aaron he was awaiting the outcome of an appeal in his case. Officials have asked that his two year sentence, which would expire in December of this year, be increased to a ten year sentence. The appeal decision was supposed to be rendered on June 9th but was delayed and has not yet been rescheduled. Much hangs in the balance. If the appeal is rejected he should be released from prison this December. If his sentence is increased that obviously will not be the case.
Aaron has had many visits from Canadian officials at the consulate in Mauritania and also from the embassy in Morocco. He appreciates the visits but says that he is not aware of what action has been taken by officials to ensure that his rights are being protected.
Amnesty International's role
Aaron’s detailed description of the torture he experienced in police custody is consistent with many other testimonies gathered by Amnesty International over the past two decades, including during this mission. The names he provided of those responsible for his torture, and his vivid physical description of the officer who took the lead in the beatings, is in keeping with numerous other accounts. So too is his recounting of the blatantly unfair nature of the trial proceedings.
I made it clear to Aaron that Amnesty International is in no position to judge the allegations against him, whatever they may be. We aren’t a police or security agency; that is not our role. I stressed that our focus lay with his allegations of torture and an unfair trial. His parting words to me were along those very lines. “I am innocent and hope I can prove that one day. Whatever people may think about me because of what my friends have done; whatever people may think of me because they don’t understand the choices I have made – I hope they do understand one thing. No one should ever be tortured and I have been tortured.”