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Cruel and unusual punishment

by James Graham 

Posted: 24 October 2014
Word Count: 2248
Summary: Non-fiction again. Tell me if this is clearly argued, or if it loses you at any point. Or any faults of clarity or style. I haven't commented in IC for a while, but I will be sure to give as well as take.

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This piece and/or subsequent comments may contain strong language.

Cruel and unusual punishment: the worldwide struggle against human rights abuses

Ángel Amílcar Colón Quevedo is free. With the honourable exception of the Toronto Star, his story never made the news, so let me tell it. Ángel belongs to the minority Garifuna community in Honduras, a people of mixed African and Carib origin. In 2009 his seven-year-old son was diagnosed with cancer. Unable to pay for treatment, he and his wife agreed that he should travel to the US, find work, and send money home. After a journey of over two thousand miles across Guatemala and Mexico he arrived in Tijuana, just across the border from California.
He made contact with one of the numerous coyotes – people smugglers – who directed him to a ‘safe house’ where he was to wait a few days for the next border crossing. Two days later Mexican police raided the house and Ángel was arrested, along with several others. Before leaving the house he was given a foretaste of what was to come: he was kicked, punched in the stomach, and forced to walk on his knees to the police van.

Ángel was taken to a military barracks, stripped naked and beaten, brought close to asphyxiation several times by means of a plastic bag tied tightly over his head, and made to lick the boots of other prisoners clean. Throughout all this he was repeatedly called pinche negro - fucking nigger. In the intervals between torture sessions he was presented with a confession statement, concocted without any input from him. When at last, unable to endure any more, he signed it, he was charged with membership of a criminal gang.

Ángel appeared before a judge who accepted the false confession and committed him to ‘pre-trial detention’ in a Centre for Social Rehabilitation – a classic euphemism coined by the inappropriately named Ministry of Justice.

After six months of ‘pre-trial detention’ Ángel heard that his son had died.

Amnesty International (AI) holds a comprehensive file on Ángel Colón. There is no evidence that he has committed any crime or has been associated in any way with a criminal organisation. Some of the arrests at the ‘safe house’ may have been justified. Even so, the subsequent trial of any person, even if there are real grounds for suspicion,  is compromised by the admission of evidence obtained under torture. In Ángel’s case, there was no justification. He was arrested and tortured because he is black.

It took five years of campaigning by human rights organisations to persuade the Mexican Federal Prosecutor to reconsider the case. No trial had been held, or even scheduled. Amnesty members worldwide did what they always do: wrote letters and emails and circulated petitions. Amnesty Canada, one of the best of AI’s national sections, pulled out all the stops, as did the Mexican human rights organisation Centro Prodh (pro derechos humanos – human rights). Representatives of the UN Human Rights Commission negotiated with the Mexican authorities, and promises were made. Finally, on 15th October 2014, charges against him were  dropped and he was released.

Good news. For human rights activists, however, good news is always counterbalanced by a host of negative implications. What follows may be enough to bring you to despair. But bear with me. There is a bright side – not bright enough to free all innocent prisoners tomorrow, but real enough to give us a humane perspective on the egregious cruelties of the world.

We might despair at the sheer pervasiveness of police torture around the world. There is a brief incident reported in an American soldier’s Vietnam diary: an old woman was taken prisoner and accused of murder and sabotage. When she protested her innocence, she was told: ‘By the time we’ve finished with you, you’ll be guilty’. The words might be displayed over the doors of countless police stations around the world; it is their mission statement. Torture is practised to some degree by police and the military in more than 90% of countries. In about 20 of these, it is routine police practice. Among the names that deserve to be named - as well as Mexico - are China, Russia, Indonesia, Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey.(Note 1) In all of these countries innocent men and women suffer abominably. Where the detainee is a woman, multiple rape is part of the procedure; there have been instances – including some Mexican cases – where it appears that the police have arrested a woman on the street solely for that purpose. Some victims such as Ángel get a degree of redress through international pressure; many do not.

We might despair at the impotence of International Law. Torture is prohibited in International Law. Therefore, many governments pretend to act against torture while allowing it in practice. Mexico, for example, has a law which states that evidence obtained under torture is inadmissible in court, but many judges disregard this law and are not held to account for doing so. International laws have been successfully enforced in a handful of cases, such as those of Charles Taylor or Slobodan Milosevic, but general enforcement – which would bring to justice a considerable number of current heads of state and other power-holders, including chiefs of police who preside over institutionalised cruelty – is very far from reality.

We might despair at the extent of global inequality. Ángel Colón would never have been where he was if there had been universal free health care in Honduras. There are hospitals and clinics in Honduras which are internationally known for their clinical excellence, but their fees are far beyond most Honduran citizens. They are used by the Honduran elite and by Americans who, being more adventurous than the condominium-dwellers of Florida, retire to Central America. This is the situation in more and more of the world’s poorest countries: standards of health care can be as high as in rich countries, but the poor cannot afford them. One billion people worldwide either have no access to health care at all, or have access to primary care only. Thus Ángel’s son could be diagnosed with cancer but secondary care - chemotherapy or other treatment - would have to be paid for.

For Amnesty International activists such as myself, these issues are ever present. It’s easy to dwell on them and feel depressed and helpless. The positive actions we take, writing to Presidents and Ministers of Justice, often seem futile. No government ever replies. We can only hope that the volume of letters and emails – tens of thousands in many cases, including that of Ángel Colón – will make some impact. But there is a broader, historical perspective too – one that helps dispel the gloom and gives activists an incentive to continue the good work.

For most of human history, the concept of human rights was virtually non-existent. In all societies acts of cruelty were accepted as a natural part of the human condition. Not merely accepted or tolerated, but actively enjoyed. The Colosseum in Rome was a major entertainment venue, in which mass audiences enjoyed watching fellow-humans fighting to the death, being eaten alive by animals, or being tortured before execution. Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance times, torture was a public spectacle: crowds flocked to see prisoners burned at the stake, broken on the wheel – strapped to a cartwheel and their legs, arms and ribs broken with an iron club – or executed by a slow process of semi-strangulation, disembowelment while still alive, and quartering with four horses harnessed to their limbs and sent galloping. Public cruelty to animals was an alternative diversion - such as cat-burning, in which a live cat was tied into a wire mesh and slowly lowered into a fire.

I have stressed the general public enjoyment of the spectacle of suffering because it defines the nature of the sea-change that has taken place over the last two to three centuries. In face of the Holocaust, the Gulag, the Cambodian and Rwandan genocides and other horrors, we can hardly say that the practice of man’s inhumanity to man has diminished. But there has been a real change, which I believe is with us for the long term. Not only cruelty as entertainment, but the very acceptance of cruelty as normal – as being a matter of no moral concern – is very greatly diminished. A revulsion against torture and other acts of cruelty, and a conviction that they are morally unacceptable, has grown to such an extent that it can be seen as a new human paradigm.

Before the 18th century, there were voices in the wilderness. Cyrus the Great of Persia (6th century BCE) is credited with the abolition of slavery and promoting freedom of religion. Some of the reported acts and sayings of Jesus of Nazareth – notably his condemnation of stoning a woman for adultery – and some of the writings of Mohammed, are early declarations of the rights of individuals and communities. But it was in the 18th century that humanitarian values began to take hold. The humanitarian principles of the ‘prophets’ of the age – Voltaire, Montesquieu, Cesare Beccaria (Note 2) and others – were for the first time taken up by political leaders who established them in law and attempted, albeit with limited success, to put them into practice. Since we are concerned here mainly with torture, we can single out advances made in that direction. Jefferson and Adams read Beccaria, and the new American Constitution prohibited ‘cruel and unusual punishment’. The French revolutionaries  established the Declaration of the Rights of Man, Article 9 of which states:

As all persons are held innocent until they shall have been declared guilty, if arrest shall be deemed indispensable, all harshness not essential to the securing of the prisoner's person shall be severely repressed by law.

Napoleon Bonaparte – a child of the Revolution as well as prolific spiller of blood – issued this directive to his army:

The barbarous custom of whipping men suspected of having important secrets to reveal must be abolished. It has always been recognized that this method of interrogation, by putting men to the torture, is useless. The wretches say whatever comes into their heads and whatever they think one wants to believe. Consequently, the Commander-in-Chief forbids the use of a method which is contrary to reason and humanity.

By the mid-twentieth century a Universal Declaration of Human Rights was in place. One of the addenda to the Declaration, the Convention against Torture, is an absolute prohibition. There can be "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever":  not war, threat of war, internal political instability, public emergency, terrorist acts, violent crime, or any form of armed conflict. Torture cannot be justified as a means to protect public safety or prevent emergencies. Neither can it be justified by orders from superior officers or public officials.

Of course, it goes without saying that this new body of international law has not functioned as a magic wand. As yet we have no adequate means of enforcing international laws against torture, or the deliberate killing of non-combatants in war, or the persecution of women who dare to behave as if they were autonomous individuals. But there has been a paradigm shift. Such abuses continue, but for the majority of people in all cultures they are no longer acceptable.

3.2 million Amnesty members around the world not only condemn human rights abuses, but are prepared to act on their convictions. Since its foundation by Peter Benenson in 1960, Amnesty has secured the release of thousands of prisoners who were arbitrarily detained without charge, or imprisoned for taking part in peaceful protests or publishing articles critical of their governments’ policies. Distinguished members include Aung San Suu Kyi, Desmond Tutu, and Malala Yousafzai. Amnesty isn’t the only organisation of its kind; the US-based Human Rights Watch operates in 90 countries, and many countries have their own human rights movements, some of which are criminalised by oppressive governments but do not abandon the struggle.

As for the perpetrators, they – and their political bosses – know that what they do is widely condemned. They are no longer secure in the belief that the world is more or less indifferent to their persecutions. Politicians have to issue denials and make gestures towards fairness and justice. Sometimes they are even compelled to take practical action.

We have come a very long way from the Roman arena. A long way from the near-universal acceptance of cruelty as a norm. Ángel Colón should never have had to make that dangerous journey across Mexico to try to save his son’s life. He should not have been arrested and detained where police had no iota of evidence against him. He should not have been tortured and humiliated under any circumstances, even if there had been grounds for his arrest. But at least he is free now, free to go home. He has publicly stated that he is glad justice has at last been done, and expressed his thanks to those who acted on his behalf. A large slice of humanity is on his side. A large slice of humanity is not prepared to tolerate the abuse of power. We live in an age when humanitarian values have become a more active force in society than ever before.

1 Details from Human Rights Watch.

2 His best-selling book On Crimes and Punishments (1764) Beccaria makes a strong case against both torture and the death penalty.


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Comments by other Members

Jennifer1976 at 09:57 on 11 November 2014  Report this post
Hi James, I'll try and have a read of this over the next few days.

All the best,


TassieDevil at 13:04 on 11 November 2014  Report this post
Hello James,
​Sadly I initiainitially chose not to read this extremely well argued article simply because I knew that the subject matter would make me uncomfortable. I've read enough of your work to realise that your forte is to address difficult issues and force us to sit up and take notice.
​Consequently I must apologise for my reticence.  However in deference to the respect I have for you, I've read it. As always it is clean, crisp and compelling in the strength of your conviction to present the facts, distressing though they might be.
​You engaged me initially with Angel's story, making the impersonal arguments take on a depth that might otherwise be ignored. Whenever I felt myself becoming detached again you reminded me of Angel throughout the later part of your article, weaving the personal tragedies into the factual larger picture.
​This is a moving article, showing injustice at its most disgusting both historically and at present. Yet it also shows the progress being made to redress this travesty and you have achieved it in a dispassionate factual fashion. Your presentation cannot be accused of emotive waffle but stands as a statement of the reality that exists. 
As such it has a strength that belies your own feelings without losing the message.
Personally I cannot find fault with any aspect of this article. I'm sorry that I can't offer a more critical reply.



Apologies for strange words like 'initiainially' that this Galaxy tablet decides to put in. I shall have to find out how to teach it to type properly.

James Graham at 20:55 on 12 November 2014  Report this post
Thanks, Alan. Your reply is helpful as I was unsure how well Ángel’s personal story tied in with the more general stuff. Your response tells me it probably hangs together well enough. I’ll look out for new work from you and be sure to read and respond.

TassieDevil at 21:40 on 12 November 2014  Report this post
Not necessary, James. You've always been there for me in the past. I'm simply glad to help out.

Jennifer1976 at 13:34 on 13 November 2014  Report this post
Hi James,
I hope my comments will be useful. I’m not at all confident critiquing this sort of article, but I’ll do my best.
I enjoyed reading this (though not sure ‘enjoyed’ is quite the right word). What I mean is, I felt it was well-written. I was drawn in by your first sentence (‘Ángel Amílcar Colón Quevedo is free’). My initial thoughts when reading this sentence were, Who is he? Should I have heard of him? You then go on to answer my question in the next sentence. I liked the informality of ‘his story never made the news, so let me tell it’.
I felt that you gave the right amount of information, because at no point did I wonder – why do I need to know that part? Your telling of the story also made me feel rather passionate about Angel and his plight and I felt rather angry about it. But you managed to tell the story without sensationalising it, or using over-emotive language other than the words you needed to use to tell the story. It felt as though although whilst you were present in the telling of it, you were also able to step back enough to let the reader in.
I like how you weaved in a little about AI and the history of human rights. You used examples that are accessible to us all (e.g. the Colosseum, Jesus, Mohammad) and you brought the article up to the modern day, before bringing attention back to Angel Colon in the last sentence.
To be honest, I’m not sure how to suggest any improvements to the article. It read very well to me. And it reminded me that I really ought to renew my membership of Amnesty international.
Many thanks for the read,

James Graham at 19:51 on 14 November 2014  Report this post
Jenny, thank you for your comment. You say you’re not confident critiquing this sort of article, but you’ve given me a very helpful response. It’s important to know that the right amount of information is given, and that the reader won’t ‘wonder – why do I need to know that part?’ And in an article on a subject like this, it’s good to know that you - so perhaps other readers - will feel that the author is ‘able to step back enough to let the reader in’. I’m a member of a local Amnesty group, and we’re sent briefings regularly on cases of cruelty and injustice. All activists know that you have to learn to step back, not let yourself be too emotionally affected, and focus on whatever action you can take. I’m glad this is reflected in the article.

Jennifer1976 at 13:37 on 15 November 2014  Report this post
Glad my crit was useful, James. Good luck with the article, and publicising Angel's plight.

All the best,


Jennifer1976 at 13:38 on 15 November 2014  Report this post
Glad my crit was useful, James. Good luck with the article, and publicising Angel's plight.

All the best,



Oops - got error message, obvs didn't mean to post twice.

Catkin at 17:25 on 16 November 2014  Report this post
This is clear, well-argued, and it did not lose me at any point - so yes, a powerful, well written and worthwhile article.

The only suggestion for a possible improvement I would make is that it could easily be two articles: one about Ángel Colón's story, and one about the history of torture and attitudes to torture in general. It did give me a feeling that I'd read to the end of one story, and then started on another. Just personally, I felt it work even better as two. I think, having told Ángel Colón's terrible story, it would resonate more with the reader if it were just left to sit in the mind, rather than immediately taking the reader from the personal to the general.

James Graham at 20:54 on 17 November 2014  Report this post
Thanks for commenting. I agree these topics could be separated - though they are related. In a separate article the topic of human rights history could be expanded. Other aspects of it could be looked at, e.g. Roman emperors’ deliberate use of violent public spectacle to keep the plebs happy and loyal. ‘Bread and circuses’. Something like this still exists here and there, e.g. public floggings in Saudi Arabia, but in our time the sense that such things are morally unacceptable is very strong.
Still, I feel it’s interesting to put Ángel Colón's story in a historical context. As it stands, the general point of the article is that Ángel Colón is free because we live in a time – unlike most of the past – when instances of cruelty and injustice quickly become known worldwide, and pressure – sometimes intense pressure – is put on the perpetrators to free the innocent and acknowledge, however reluctantly, that they were wrong. So on the whole I prefer to keep the article as a sort of ‘two-in-one’ affair – but might write a new piece just on the history of human rights.

Catkin at 00:33 on 18 November 2014  Report this post
Well, it's very good your way, James. It deserves to be published, and I hope that happens soon.

Wendy Mason at 15:04 on 28 November 2014  Report this post
Dear James, my appologies for not responding earlier, as you may have gathered I was away for a month in Australia.
As others have said, this is a powerful piece, very well written and hardly gives us any chance to offer any improvements at all, in fact I hesitate to even try. However, in an attempt to help, if only a little I will try to offer a couple of very minor suggestions.

I wonder if the "numerous ‘coyotes’ – people smugglers" would look less broken up if it was "numerous coyotes - people smugglers?" especially as you have 'safe house' in the same section.Just below you have pinche negro (fucking nigger). I would suggest that approach to both should be the same ie.  numerous coyotes - people smugglers AND pinche negro - fucking nigger.

‘By the time we’ve finished with you, you’ll be guilty’ This is a quote and if intended for UK publication should be "  as the speach marks, which differentiates it from where you have used ' to signify 'so called' such as in 'safe house' and ‘pre-trial detention.’ Also you do use " later on when you quote "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever" so you need to be consistent, I think. 

Another very minor point is that sometimes you use different hyphens ie. "side – not " AND "named - as well as Mexico - are." In fact, I'm not quite sure how you have done that but as you can see they are different sizes.

"but judges are allowed to disregard this law. (A few uphold it.) " I thought the bracket comment distracted slightly and could be left out. Also it could be "judges are given freedom to disregard this law." Allowed almosts suggests on  a case by case approach where as freedom is whenever they chose?

I realise these are very minor points and that simply reflects the fact that this is such a strong piece, hope it helps.

"being killed, by fighting to the death" did not quite sound right?

James Graham at 15:58 on 28 November 2014  Report this post
Thanks for your detailed comment, Wendy. Minor points are well worth pointing out, and I've made some changes. Can't explain the hyphens, though. I use Word 2010 (non-commercial use) and it does some weird things. And I don't know if you find this too, but 'Help' isn't helpful. If I can find a way to sort the hyphens, I will.

I'll lok out for a new 'Canterbury Tale' and be sure to comment.


stormbox at 19:44 on 29 November 2014  Report this post
Hi James,

I'm new to this, but hopefully my views might still be helpful. I found the article very well-written, informative, and persuasive. I think it is stengthened by concentrating on the injustices meted out to Ángel, as an individual we can relate to, before broadening out to the history and acceptance of torture worldwide, and then returning to Ángel again. I found the "We might despair at ..." paragraphs to be particularly good at getting the main points across.

I understand that the strong language is relevant and I can see the reasoning for including it, but I do worry that the Content Warning banner at the top could deter a lot of people from reading the article, and it could preclude it from wider publication. Maybe it would be sufficient to explain that he was racially abused just for the colour of his skin?

Finally, I was hoping for more of a call of arms at the end. How can we help? Join up to Amnesty International, write to our MP, sign a petition, boycott Mexican produce? By ending on 'We live in an age when humanitarian values have become a more active force in society than ever before.' it might give a sense of complacency that everything will be ok because things are inevitably moving in the right direction.


Manusha at 19:58 on 01 December 2014  Report this post
Hi stormbox, 

Thank you kindly for commenting on James' article and thereby contributing to our group. For some reason your comment isn't showing up in the 'Recent Comments' or 'All Activity' sections of IC, so I thought I'd post this in the hope that it wouldn't be missed by James' thoughtful attention. 

Kind regards, Andy

James Graham at 15:48 on 03 December 2014  Report this post
Thanks, David.

I was hoping for more of a call of arms at the end.

When I think about it, you're right. I suppose it would depend on where it was to be published; if it was in a journal mostly read by people committed to action on human rights, it wouldn't be necessary. But in a more 'neutral' publication it would be appropriate to tell readers how to get involved. Really I've no idea who would publish this, though I've started weighing up a few options. Suggestions from IC members would be welcome!


danenbarger at 12:06 on 27 January 2015  Report this post
I hardly feel qualified to critique your writing as this article is, in fact, well written from the start. I will only comment as a casual reader might.

I think this would be a great title: ‘By the time we’ve finished with you, you’ll be guilty’.

The article is extremely interesting and I found no slow-down in my interest in reading it. I was bothered by the punctuation and spacing, but that is easy to fix. I would not start a sentence with a number, as in the paragraph beginning with “3.2 million….”

Picky, picky: in the first paragraph after the word “Mexico,” I think there should be a comma. And the lack of comma after an introductory prepositional phrases is consistent and occurs too many on which to comment.

And finally, I would break up the longer paragraphs to make it easier to read.

Take my review for what it is worth...not much.


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