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UN WORKING GROUP ON ARBITRARY DETENTION CONCLUDES VISIT TO NORWAY


2 May 2007

The following statement was released today at a news conference in Oslo by Leila Zerrougui, Chairperson-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and by Manuela Carmena Castrillo, member of the Working Group, on the conclusion of that panel's ten-day official visit to Norway:

First of all, you may ask yourselves why the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has come to Norway. The answer is simply that the Government has extended a standing invitation to all the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. The Working Group is one of these mechanisms and upon our request the Government agreed to receive us.

The Working Group’s delegation visiting Norway was composed of Ms. Leila Zerrougui, Chairperson-Rapporteur of the Working Group, and Ms. Manuela Carmena Castrillo, member of the Working Group, the Secretary of the Working Group, another official from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and two interpreters.

In the course of its ten days in Norway the Working Group visited Oslo, Stavanger and Tromsø. The Working Group was able to hold meetings with the Royal Minister and the Deputy Minister of Justice and Police and other authorities of the Ministry, including representatives from the Department of Immigration and of Correctional Services, of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Labour and Social Inclusion, Health and Care Services, the Director General of Public Prosecutions, the National Police Commissioner, representatives from the National Police Directorate as well as police authorities in the cities visited, prison authorities, representatives from the National Directorate of Immigration, of the Rogaland Probation Office in Stavanger, and psychiatric doctors. Moreover, the Working Group enjoyed the privilege of being invited to highly informative discussions with Justices of the Supreme Court of Norway, judges of the Stavanger District Court as well as with the Chairwoman of the Standing Committee on Justice of the Norwegian Parliament. The Working Group further held meetings with representatives from the Norwegian civil society, including members of the Human Rights Sub-Committee of the Norwegian Bar Association, the Parliamentary Ombudsman and the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights. The delegation further held discussions with members of the Faculty of Law of the University of Tromsø dealing with the rights of the Sámi people and of its Centre for Sámi Studies.

An essential part of the Working Group’s programme were, as always during country visits, the visits to institutions where persons are deprived of their liberty: the Working Group visited the holding cells of the Police Districts of Oslo, Rogaland and Tromsø, Stavanger Prison, ?na Prison, Tromsø Prison, Oslo Prison, Bredtveit Prison for women, Ila Prison for preventive detention, Trandum Detention Centre for immigrants, and two psychiatric hospitals. In these facilities the Working Group held private interviews with 138 detainees.

During the entire visit and in all respects, the Working Group has enjoyed the fullest cooperation of the Government and of all authorities it dealt with. The delegation has been able to visit all the detention centres or other institutions that it requested. In all these facilities, the delegation has been able to meet and interview all detainees it has chosen at random, such as police holds, pre-trial detainees, convicted persons serving their sentence, prisoners in isolation or sentenced to preventive detention, immigration holds, women, a 17 year old juvenile held at Ila Prison and persons involuntarily committed to psychiatric treatment facilities. The representatives of the authorities met by the Working Group were willing to discuss all matters raised by the Working Group openly and strived to provide the delegation with all the information it requested. We reiterate our gratitude for their transparency and cooperation.

Before we share with you our first impressions on this visit to your country, it may be useful to spend some further time on the Working Group’s mandate. Our mandate is confined to considering the legal process that leads to persons being deprived of their liberty and being held in detention, and to the legal guarantees they enjoy. This process has to b reviewed in the light of the binding international human rights instruments Norway has ratified, in particular the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. To carry out its mandate, the Working Group does not satisfy itself with analysing legal norms as they appear on the books. It also looks at the way those norms are applied and implemented. We always deem it necessary to stress that the Working Group has no competence with respect to conditions of detention, with one important exception, however: where the conditions of detention are of such quality that they impair the detainees’ ability to effectively defend themselves, and thus significantly affecting their right to a fair trial, conditions of detention become of concern to the Working Group.

In setting forth our first impressions arising from our visit, we have noted that Norway is a country in which there are no major issues of arbitrary detention to be observed. Independent institutions in all spheres of Government at all levels with checks and balances among them prevent instances of arbitrary deprivation of liberty from occurring. Norway’s criminal procedure system is functioning efficiently and meets international human rights standards. The duration of pre-trial detention is relatively short on average and the right of the detainee to be brought promptly before a judge within the applicable time limits is generally complied with. Detainees are at all stages of the criminal proceedings able to effectively challenge the lawfulness of their detention. Appeal procedures after the trial and conviction in the court of first instance are conducted rapidly.

Pre-trial detainees enjoy the right to be assisted by a lawyer of their choice from the first stage of the criminal proceedings and the Working Group notes that this right to access to a lawyer is respected. Irrespective of need the State bears all costs of the defence counsel which guarantees the same quality of criminal defence for all accused.

Imprisonment means much more than just providing a place in a lock-up cell. The Working Group notes with appreciation a policy of real interest on the side of the State towards the penitentiary system as a whole. It reflects the commitment of the Government and all pertinent institutions in Norway to provide to prison inmates education, health care and occupation in a suitable environment for rehabilitation without overcrowding cells.

This policy, which is necessary to reduce the risk of detainees relapsing into delinquency after their release, has a price. Norway currently holds about 3400 persons in custody, but approximately 2000 individuals convicted to serve a prison sentence are sometimes waiting for a significant period of time before they are able to assume their prison term. Honouring the responsibility of the State towards the convicts and maintaining the standard of services provided to them renders the “waiting list” phenomenon virtually inevitable. The Working Group notes with appreciation that the Government has been addressing the issue through a number of suitable measures, including the consideration of earlier releases of prisoners, when appropriate, and the exploration of ways to increase the use of alternatives to prison sentences, for example, community sentences or home imprisonment under electronic surveillance.

Another positive aspect of the Norwegian criminal justice system is the fact that minors in conflict with the law are criminally liable only from the age of 15 and above. Detention of persons between 15 and 18 years of age is used as a last resort and the Working Group has been informed by the Government that merely 8 of them currently remain imprisoned. The Working Group has met with one 17 year old who is held together with adults in a high security prison (Ila Prison).

The Working Group appreciates that asylum seekers in Norway are not taken into custody pending their applications and dwell in open reception centres where they enjoy the right to freedom of movement in the country. Detention pursuant to the Norwegian Immigration Act is ordered by a court and used only as a last resort in limited instances and for a short period of time on the average. The Working Group understands that at present insufficient statutory regulations are in place for the management of Trandum Detention Centre as was previously raised by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture following its recent visit to Norway as well as by the Norwegian Parliamentary Ombudsman. We have been informed that the Norwegian Government has tabled a Bill in Parliament to fill this gap and the Working Group will reflect on this issue in more detail in its written report after the adoption of the new regulations.

Involuntary confinement of persons in psychiatric institutions is the exception, not the rule. Patients are able to effectively challenge the compulsory admittance decision before an independent Control Commission, which is composed of a judge, a doctor and two lay persons, and in case of a negative outcome before the ordinary civil courts. They enjoy the assistance of a lawyer of their choice at all stages of the proceedings and the State covers all costs. With respect to prisoners who develop a mental health problem during their prison stay and should be admitted to a psychiatric institution, the Working Group invites the Government to consider resolving of conflicts of competence that have occurred between correctional service and health care authorities to ensure that the person receives appropriate treatment. At any rate such prison inmates should not be put in isolation.

The frequency of use of isolation in detention, both in remand and after sentencing, is of general concern for the Working Group. When in remand during the ongoing investigation, defendants may find themselves in partial or complete isolation ordered by the competent court at the request of the police and prosecutors. Total isolation entails being locked up in a cell without any contact to other prison inmates or to the outside world except for the lawyer, no television, no radio or newspaper. The Working Group recognises that there are different systems of investigation and at times it might be necessary to isolate in order to prevent tampering with evidence. Such restrictive measures, however, must be decided upon on a case by case basis, when an assessment of the facts of each individual case indicate the requirement for isolation, and not on the mere basis of categories of charges or offences put against the persons concerned. According to the information received by the Working Group, at Oslo Prison, for example, of approximately 160 detainees on remand, 35% are held either in total isolation or are subject to certain restrictions at the request of the police. In the year 2006, 200 pre-trial detainees were in total isolation or put under restriction measures at least once.

The Working Group raises this issue because isolation and restrictions imposed upon pre-trial detainees can be considered a severe treatment which may weaken their position at a very important stage of the investigation, at a time when the police are gathering evidence in order to put charges against them.

The Working Group has also met with convicted prisoners serving parts of their term in isolation either on the basis of a decision of the prison authorities invoking their discretionary powers for security or behavioural reasons or because they belong to certain categories of persons convicted of serious crimes. Such decisions cannot be challenged in court and are seldom reversed by the regional correctional service authorities.

The situation becomes even more difficult for persons who are listed under the so called “infoflyt” system. During its visit the Working Group has been informed that “infoflyt” is a database that has recently been established and contains classified information about alleged political extremists, terrorists, or detainees related to organised crime. This information either forms the basis for a decision of the prison authorities to impose restrictions upon inmates up to the point of total isolation or becomes relevant at the time when prisoners are, in principle, eligible for early release, usually after having served two thirds of their prison term. The Working Group takes note that at present 76 detainees throughout the country fall under this system and that the figures are constantly growing. The Group has also been able to interview some of these detainees during its visit.

Merely a few high ranking officials in the Norwegian Correctional Services at central level (KSF) and in the National Police Directorate have access to the database. Access to the persons concerned or their lawyers may be granted only in exceptional circumstances. The Working Group is troubled by the fact that without access to “infoflyt” the detainees or their counsel are in a weak position to successfully challenge in court any decision taken by the competent authorities with regard to an application for early release or with regard to the imposition of restrictions. Since not even the courts have access to the information, the Working Group understands that the only external control mechanism in place at present is the mandate of the Parliamentary Ombudsman, who is able to look into the database, but may not disclose any information contained therein. Moreover, the Parliamentary Ombudsman, albeit his mandate allows him to receive and act upon individual complaints, is not in a position to provide for an effective remedy to the detainees, since he is answerable solely to Parliament. This system as it currently stands touches upon the detainees’ right to challenge the legality of their detention.

Another issue of concern for the Working Group is the situation of prisoners sentenced to preventive detention, especially with regard to the broad discretionary powers of the prison authorities attached to the system and the extent of control by the courts. The Working Group, however, will have to study this issue in more detail and will reflect on it in its written report.

These are, Ladies and Gentlemen, our first impressions at the conclusion of our visit.

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