Forced confession

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The teacher Ursula painfully tortured, whipped, beaten, and finally burned in Maastricht, AD 1570 engraved by Jan Luyken for the Martyrs Mirror, 1685

A forced confession is a confession obtained from a suspect or a prisoner by means of torture (including enhanced interrogation techniques) or other forms of duress. Depending on the level of coercion used, a forced confession is not valid in revealing the truth. The individuals being interrogated may agree to the story presented to them or even make up falsehoods themselves in order to satisfy the interrogator and discontinue their suffering.[1]

For centuries the Latin phrase "Confessio est regina probationum" (in English: "Confession is the queen of evidence") justified the use of forced confession in the European legal system. When especially during the Middle Ages acquiring a confession was the most important thing during preparations before a trial, than the method used to get the confession seemed irrelevant, de facto sanctioning the use of torture to extract forced confession.[citation needed]

By the late 18th century, most scholars and lawyers thought of the forced confession not only as a relic of past times and morally wrong but also ineffective as the victim of torture may confess to anything just to ease their suffering.

Developments in the 20th century, notably the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, greatly reduced the legal acceptance of forced confessions. However, for most of legal history they have been accepted in most of the world, and are still accepted in some jurisdictions.

Modern-day usage[edit]


Mohamed Ramadan[edit]

Bahraini authorities refused for more than two years to investigate complaints regarding the torture of Mohamed Ramadan—a father-of-three on death row who was tortured into making a false confession.[2]

In February 2014, Ramadan was arrested from Bahrain International Airport, where he worked as a police officer. He was accused of involvement in an attack on other police officers. There is no evidence tying him to the crime, according to Reprieve, who state that Ramadan is innocent and was arrested in retaliation for his attendance at pro-democracy demonstrations.[3]

Following his arrest, Ramadan was tortured by police into signing a false confession. During his initial detention, police officers "told Mohammed outright that they knew he was innocent", but were punishing him as a traitor for attending pro-democracy demonstrations.[3]

During his entire pre-trial detention, Ramadan was not allowed to meet with his lawyer. The day Ramadan's trial began was the first time he saw his lawyer's face. In that trial, he was convicted and sentenced to death almost solely on the basis of confessions extracted through prolonged torture.[3]

2016 Reprieve report[edit]

In 2016, human rights organisation Reprieve published an investigative report which argued that seven Bahraini men facing the death penalty had been forced into confessing their crimes after being tortured during interrogations. The report also revealed that the Bahraini government was employing Northern Ireland Co-operation Overseas, a firm funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, to train its law enforcement personnel.[4]

Sami Mushaima, Ali Al-Singace, Abbas Al-Samea (2017) executed[edit]

On 15 January 2017, Bahraini authorities executed three torture victims following authorization by King Hamad. Sami Mushaima (42), Ali Al-Singace (21) and Abbas Al-Samea (27) were executed by firing squad.[5][6]

Bahrain security forces (a force that includes foreign national forces) arrested Sami Mushaima in March 2014 and held him incommunicado for at least 11 days. Security officials subjected Mushaima to beatings, electrocution, and sexual assault. His front teeth were severely damaged. Mushaima's family believes he was coerced into falsely confessing through the use of torture.[5]

Sami Mushaima, Ali Al-Singace, and Abbas Al-Samea are all torture victims rendered stateless and condemned to death following unfair trials. Their executions have sparked widespread protests across the country.[5]

Maya Foa, a director of the international human rights group Reprieve, said:

It is nothing short of an outrage – and a disgraceful breach of international law – that Bahrain has gone ahead with these executions. The death sentences handed to Ali, Sami and Abbas were based on confessions extracted through torture, and the trial an utter sham. ... It would be shameful if the UK continued to support Bahrain's security apparatus and Ministry of Interior in the face of such terrible abuses.[7]

The European Union also condemned the sentences: "This case is a serious drawback given that Bahrain had suspended executions for ... (several) years, and concerns have been expressed about possible violations of the right to a fair process for the three convicted".[8]


Tainá Rape (2013)[edit]

Four men were arrested and confessed to raping and killing a girl named Tainá who was crossing in front of the theme park where they worked. Later the police found that the girl was not raped and that the four men were tortured. 13 policemen were arrested, and the police chief fled.[9]


The People's Republic of China systematically employed forced televised confession against Chinese dissidents and workers of various human rights group in an attempt to discredit, smear and suppress dissident voices and activism.[10][11] These scripted confessions, obtained with the person under duress and via torture, are broadcast on the state television.[12] Notable victims includes Wang Yu, a female human rights lawyer, and Swedish citizen Peter Dahlin, an NGO worker and human rights activist.[10][13] The owners of Causeway Bay Books – Gui Minhai and Lam Wing-kee – who were abducted by state security agents operating outside of Mainland China, also made such controversial confessions. Upon regaining his freedom, Lam detailed his abduction and detention, and recanted his confessions in Hong Kong to the media.[11]

These televised confession and acts of contrition have been denounced as frauds by critics. Media organisations in China and in Hong Kong, including the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba, have been criticised for abetting the practice by circulating the "confessions" and in some cases even participating in them. Safeguard Defenders released a report in April 2018 in which 45 high-profile examples of the so-called confessions were broadcast between July 2013 and February 2018.[14][15] More than half of the subjects were journalists, lawyers, and other individuals involved in promoting human rights in China.[14] The confessions were mostly imposed on the subjects outside of the formal legal framework, in the absence of a trial, and without regard for the presumption of innocence under the Chinese law.[11] Many of those forced to record confessions later explained in detail how the videos were carefully scripted and made under the watchful eyes of the agents of the security apparatus, demonstrating their powerlessness once they are within the opaque[colloquialism] Chinese legal system.[11]

Islamic Republic of Iran[edit]

According to at least two observers (Ervand Abrahamian, Nancy Updike), the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has systematically used false confessions extracted by torture. They have been used on a much larger scale than in Stalin's Soviet Union because the confessions could be videotaped and broadcast for purposes of propaganda.[16] During the 1980s, television "recantation" shows were common on Iranian state television.[17][18]

Since eyewitness accounts were published documenting the use of torture in extracting confessions, the recantations and confessions have lost much (or some) of their propaganda impact.[citation needed] The practice of collecting confessions has continued, however, now used more to demoralize the opposition, gather information about them, and sow fear and distrust among the Iranian opposition as "recanters" accuse other opposition members.[19] There were reportedly so many confessions coerced following the 2009 protest crackdown that "there's no way to film even a tiny percentage of them."[19]

The public e'terafat in Iran are not simply confessions, but "political and ideological recantation(s)". They come in a variety of forms, "pretrial testimonials; in chest-beating letters; in mea culpa memoirs; press conferences, 'debates', and 'roundtable discussions'", but most commonly in videotaped 'interviews' and 'conversations' aired on prime-time television."[20] The standard form in the time of Ayatollah Khomeini began with an introduction hailing Imam Khomeini with all of his titles (Founder of the Islamic Republic, leader of the Islamic Revolution, etc.) The recanter "emphasised the interview was entirely voluntary and that the speaker had come forth willingly to warn others of the pitfalls awaiting them if they deviated from the Khatt-e Imam [line of the Imam] Then followed condemnation of the prisoner's organisation, beliefs, comrades. Ended with thanks to the wardens [for the opportunity to] see the light. It hoped that the sincere repentance and the Imam's compassion would pave the way for forgiveness, redemption, ... [however, if] the Imam chose not to forgive, that too would be understandable in light of the enormity of the crimes."[21]

These recantations served as powerful propaganda not only for both the Iranian public at large but also for the recanter's former colleagues, for whom the denunciations were demoralising and confusing.[22] From the moment they arrived in prison, through their interrogation prisoners were asked if they were willing to give an "interview". (mosahebah) "Some remained incarcerated even after serving their sentences simply because they declined the honour of being interviewed."[23]

While the constitution of the Islamic Republic explicitly outlaws shekanjeh (torture) and the use of coerced confessions, other laws are employed to allow coercion. Up to 74 lashings can be administered for 'lying to the authorities', and a defendant may be found guilty of lying by a cleric in the process of interrogating the defendant. Thus "clerical interrogators can give indefinite series of 74 lashings until they obtain 'honest answers'".[24]

Techniques used to extract confessions included whipping, most often on the soles of the feet; deprivation of sleep; suspension from the ceiling and high walls; twisting of forearms until they broke; crushing of hands and fingers between metal presses; insertion of sharp instruments under the fingernails; cigarette burns; submersion under water; standing in one place for hours on end; mock executions; and physical threats against family members.[25]

According to one defendant, "his interrogator kept on repeating throughout his torment 'This hadd punishment will continue until you give us a videotaped interview'", "interview" being the term used for confession sessions.[26]

In June 2020, FIDH and its member organization Justice for Iran (JFI), in a 57-page report titled "Orwellian State: The Islamic Republic of Iran’s State Media as a Weapon of Mass Suppression", reported that between 2009 and 2019, Iranian state-owned media IRIB broadcast the forced confessions of about 355 individuals and defamatory content against at least 505 individuals. The report is the outcome of more than 1,500 hours of research and analysis of over 150 programs and 13 in-depth interviews with victims of forced confessions.[27][28]

Khmer Rouge[edit]

In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge used torture to force confessions and false implications from approximately 17,000 persons at the former Tuol Sleng high school. All but seven were either executed or died due to the mistreatment.[This paragraph needs citation(s)] The leaders of the interrogation and torture system of the Khmer Rouge were Mam Nai and Tang Sin Hean.[29]

Soviet Union[edit]

In the Soviet Union, a series of show trials, known as the Moscow Show Trials, were orchestrated by Joseph Stalin during the Great Purge of the late 1930s. More than 40 high-level political prisoners were sentenced either to the firing squad or to labour camps. The trials are today universally acknowledged to have used forced confessions, obtained through torture and threats against the defendants' families, to eliminate any potential political challengers to Stalin's authority.[30][dubious ]


The Crime of Cuenca (1910)[edit]

Due to police torture, two men confessed to the murder of another man who had disappeared. Based solely on their confession, as no body had been recovered, they were convicted and sentenced to long jail terms. Years later the supposed victim reappeared in the small village, and it was proven that he had left voluntarily years before.[This paragraph needs citation(s)]

United Kingdom[edit]

Birmingham Six (1974)[edit]

The Birmingham Six were six men from Northern Ireland accused of carrying out the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974. After their arrest, four of the six confessed to the crime. These confessions were later claimed to be the result of intimidation and torture by police, including the use of dogs and mock executions. In 1991, after 17 years in prison, an appeal to their convictions was allowed. The evidence at hearing showed widespread police fabrication, suppression of evidence, and extreme irregularities in the relevant forensic evidence. All six individuals were released and awarded compensation of up to £1.2 million. As a result of this and other miscarriages of justice, a Royal Commission on Criminal Justice was established in March 1991 to create reforms and provide oversight to the process.

Guildford Four (1974)[edit]

As a result of the Guildford pub bombings carried out by Irish republican paramilitaries in 1974, four Irish individuals were charged and convicted of murder and terrorist activities. All had confessed to the crimes while in police custody but later retracted their statements. In their trial, they would claim that they had made false confessions, resulting from intimidation and torture by police. Seven relatives of one of the original four defendants were also convicted of terrorist activities in 1976. All of the individuals involved had their convictions quashed, by two rulings in 1989 and 1991, after having served up to 16 years in prison. These appeals investigations revealed large-scale deception and illegal activities undertaken by both the Metropolitan Police and the Crown Prosecution Service. In 2005 the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair, issued a public apology for the imprisonment of these persons, describing it as an 'injustice' and stating that "they deserve to be completely and publicly exonerated".

United States[edit]

Since 2001, as part of its War on Terror the United States using the CIA operates a network of off shore prisons, called black sites, probably the most well-known of which is Guantánamo Bay detention camp. State officials have admitted to the press and in court to be using various torture techniques (authorised by the District attorney) to interrogate suspects of terrorism, sometimes after forced disappearance or extraordinary rendition by the United States.

When these systematic acts were made public by the international media, the European Union, United Nations, the international press and various human rights movements condemned their practice. The US Supreme Court did not discontinue their usage and repeatedly ruled against hearing from those that underwent forced confessions, even after they were found innocent, claiming that a trial would constitute a breach of national security.[31]

A famous case is that of Khalid El-Masri. He appealed several times aided by different international human rights movements and lawyers, yet the US Supreme Court retained its usage of forced confession techniques, and denied a hearing of the evidence.

Brown v. Mississippi (1936)[edit]

The United States Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Mississippi (1936) established conclusively that confessions extracted through the use of physical brutality violate the Due Process Clause. In this case, defendants Arthur Ellington, Ed Brown and Henry Shields (three black tenant farmers) had been convicted and sentenced to death in Mississippi for the murder of Raymond Stewart (a white planter) on 30 March 1934. The convictions had been based solely on confessions obtained through violence:

... defendants were made to strip and they were laid over chairs and their backs were cut to pieces with a leather strap with buckles on it, and they were likewise made by the said deputy definitely to understand that the whipping would be continued unless and until they confessed, and not only confessed, but confessed in every matter of detail as demanded by those present; and in this manner, the defendants confessed the crime, and, as the whippings progressed and were repeated, they changed or adjusted their confession in all particulars of detail so as to conform to the demands of their torturers. When the confessions had been obtained in the exact form and contents as desired by the mob, they left with the parting admonition and warning that, if the defendants changed their story at any time in any respect from that last stated, the perpetrators of the outrage would administer the same or equally effective treatment. Further details of the brutal treatment to which these helpless prisoners were subjected need not be pursued. It is sufficient to say that in pertinent respects the transcript reads more like pages torn from some medieval account than a record made within the confines of a modern civilization which aspires to an enlightened constitutional government.[32]

The Supreme Court concluded: "It would be difficult to conceive of methods more revolting to the sense of justice than those taken to procure the confessions of these petitioners, and the use of the confessions thus obtained as the basis for conviction and sentence was a clear denial of due process ... In the instant case, the trial court was fully advised by the undisputed evidence of the way in which the confessions had been procured ... The court thus denied a federal right fully established and specially set up and claimed, and the judgment must be reversed."[32]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Boffa, Christa (8 July 2016). "Palazz Castellania". Illum (in Maltese). Archived from the original on 30 July 2016.
  2. ^ "Belfast to Bahrain: the torture trail" (PDF). Reprieve.
  3. ^ a b c "Mohammed Ramadan".
  4. ^ "Britain Funded Torture Training in Bahrain". Voice of Bahrain. Archived from the original on 11 October 2017. Retrieved 16 January 2017.
  5. ^ a b c "Bahrain Executes Stateless Torture Victims Following King Hamad's Authorization". Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain.
  6. ^ "Bahrain executes Shia convicted of fatal bomb attack". THE FINANCIAL TIMES LTD. Archived from the original on 2022-12-10.
  7. ^ "Press Release: Bahrain Executes Three Men". Archived from the original on 16 January 2017.
  8. ^ "Bahrain executions spark violent protests".
  9. ^ "13 dos 14 suspeitos de tortura para obter confissão de estupro estão presos no Paraná; falta o delegado". Retrieved 3 May 2015.
  10. ^ a b Wong, Edward (2016-01-21). "China Uses Foreigners' Televised Confessions to Serve Its Own Ends". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-06-19.
  11. ^ a b c d Myers, Steven Lee (2018-04-11). "How China Uses Forced Confessions as Propaganda Tool". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-06-19.
  12. ^ "Chinese TV channel breached rules with 'forced confession'". BBC News. 2020-07-06. Retrieved 2021-11-19.
  13. ^ "瑞典人彼得·達林:我在中國上電視認罪,《1984》噩夢成為現實". (in Traditional Chinese). Retrieved 2018-10-01.
  14. ^ a b "New report offers backstage pass to China's forced TV confessions". Safeguard Defenders. 2018-04-08. Retrieved 2021-11-19.
  15. ^ "Chinese TV forced confessions campaign timeline". Safeguard Defenders. 2020-06-10. Retrieved 2021-11-19.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  16. ^ Abrahamian, Ervand, Tortured Confessions, 1999, p.4
  17. ^ Abrahamian, Ervand, Tortured Confessions, 1999, p. 222
  18. ^ Abrahamian, Ervand, Tortured Confessions, University of California Press, 1999 p. 13
  19. ^ a b "In Tehran in 2004, Omid Memarian confessed to doing things he'd never done", meeting people he'd never met, following plots he'd never heard of., This Life
  20. ^ Abrahamian, Ervand, Tortured Confessions (p.4)
  21. ^ Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions (p.142-3)
  22. ^ Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions, 1999, p.5
  23. ^ Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions, 1999, p.138
  24. ^ Abrahamian, Ervand, Tortured Confessions by Ervand Abrahamian, University of California Press, 1999 p.133
  25. ^ Abrahamian, Ervand, Tortured Confessions by Ervand Abrahamian, University of California Press, 1999 p. 139
  26. ^ source: Democratic Society of Iranians in France, Dar Rahraha-ye Khob: Yazday Gozaresh (In the Labyrinths of Blood: Eleven Eyewitness Accounts) (Paris, 1984)
  27. ^ "Iran: New report demands end to the rampant use of forced confessions". International Federation for Human Rights. 2020-06-25. Retrieved 2020-06-26.
  28. ^ "'بازجوها گفتند دخترت را سالم می‌خواهی یا نه؟'". BBC News فارسی (in Persian). 2020-06-26. Retrieved 2020-06-26.
  29. ^ CAAI News Media (July 16, 2009). "Mam Nay, Duch's former deputy: amnesia and serious accommodation with truth". Retrieved 3 May 2015.
  30. ^ Stalin's terror: high politics and mass repression in the Soviet Union by Barry McLoughlin and Kevin McDermott
  31. ^ "Statement: Khaled El-Masri". American Civil Liberties Union. 2018-11-06. Retrieved 2020-06-26.
  32. ^ a b United States Supreme Court (17 February 1936). "Brown et al. v. State of Mississippi". Retrieved 5 September 2007.

External links[edit]