PART II - DOCUMENTING ALLEGATIONS
3. Interviewing the person alleging torture
In many ways, recording the allegation of torture is the most crucial step
in the entire reporting process, because it dictates what you are able to do
with the information in the later stages, yet it is also the one which can be
most difficult either to learn or to explain in a universally applicable manner.
Training of personnel in interview techniques should form part of the preparation
any NGO makes before attempting to document allegations and is beyond the scope
of this handbook. The following guidelines and suggestions are designed to be
used as an aide memoire and not intended to replace proper training of
Remember that an allegation of torture may be made by:
- the victim
- the relatives of a victim
- witnesses, such as a doctor who examined the individual, or individuals
who saw the victim being taken into custody or were present during the incident
In all cases the information can be collected by interviewing the person making
the allegation. The interview may lead you to seek further witnesses, such as
co-detainees, or a doctor who may have examined the person (see Part
II, Chapter 5.3)
3.2 General considerations
When conducting an interview, you should bear in mind the following general
- You need to balance two important requirements, which should be complementary,
but may sometimes conflict: the need to obtain a useful account, and the importance
of respecting the needs of the person being interviewed.
=> On the one hand, the guiding principle should be that you are attempting
to obtain the most logical, precise and detailed account possible of the
incident, so as to enable you or anybody examining the allegation to understand
clearly what happened, as well as to make it possible to seek verification
or investigation of the information.
=> On the other hand, it can easily happen that an interviewer, intent
on reconstructing a sequence of events, forgets that the interview itself
can be very difficult for a person who has already undergone a traumatic
experience once and is being asked to focus on it in detail. Interviewers
should show sensitivity in their questioning and watch out for signs of
tiredness or distress. They should also be aware of culturally taboo subjects,
particularly sexual abuse. Not only may the interview become unpleasant
for the person being interviewed, but it is also possible that the account
may become less reliable if the person is tired or upset.
- A balance must also be struck between the need to obtain as many details
as possible and the importance of not over-directing or influencing the account.
The facts which you record should be those which occurred, not those which
you suggest might have occurred.
- Each person interviewed, whether the victim or a relative or other witness,
is an individual with a distinct story. Even if you are aware of the patterns
of violations that are prevalent in your area in the greatest detail, or you
are fairly certain what happened to a particular victim, you should not assume
that each person will have the same story. You must treat each interview as
a unique record.
- Members of the documentation team might find interviewing victims of torture
and other witnesses to be very stressful. They should be prepared to discuss
their responses and feelings amongst themselves, and if necessary seek professional
3.3 Conducting the interview
3.3.1 Before you start
Remember to review in detail the discussions in Part
I, Chapter 2.3, relating to informed consent, professional ethics
and security. They are central to the interview process and there are
certain aspects which you will need to explain carefully to the interviewee.
3.3.2 How should you begin the interview?
You should begin by introducing yourself, your organisation, your objectives,
and the possible uses to which the information you are gathering may be put.
If you requested a particular individual by name, you should explain to that
individual how you obtained his or her name. Make sure that the interviewee
has no objection to note-taking or the use of recording-machines or interpreters.
Address the issue of informed consent and emphasise the confidentiality
of the interview itself, subject to the consent of the individual to its use.
It is also important not to build unrealistic expectations for the interviewee
- you should make sure that they understand that any potential allegation process
may take time and can yield limited results.
3.3.3 Should you keep notes of the interview?
Keeping a detailed record of your interview is important to ensure accuracy,
but you should explain to the individual how these notes will be used and who
will have access to the information contained in them. There may be some instances
when it is more appropriate to just listen (e.g. in a small police station)
and make your notes immediately afterward.
3.3.4 By whom should the interview be conducted?
Interviewing an individual, particularly a victim, about an incident of torture
is both emotionally and physically tiring. It is especially difficult where
the interviewer is alone, because this requires an ability to ask questions,
listen, develop a rapport with the interviewee, handle difficult emotional situations,
take notes and watch out for gaps and inconsistencies all at the same time,
an almost impossible task. Where the circumstances permit, it is best to interview
as a pair, with one person asking the questions and the other taking notes.
Even better is where the two individuals have complementary skills, e.g. medical
and legal expertise. This helps to make sure that no important points are missed
and that the right questions are asked. In order to avoid confusion for the
interviewee and to facilitate the establishment of a rapport, however, you should
make sure that one of the interviewers has primary responsibility for questioning,
giving the second interviewer an opportunity to intervene towards the end.
3.3.5 Are there any special considerations to keep
in mind when using interpreters?
- Make sure that the interviewee agrees to the use of an interpreter and is
aware that the interpreter has a professional duty to respect the confidentiality
of the interview.
- Be aware that the interpreter may find the content of the interview difficult
to deal with
- Make sure that the interpreter is aware of the need for absolute confidentiality
- this is particularly important if you are using non-professional interpreters.
- Be aware that non-professional interpreters may be more easily drawn into
the conversation than professional ones - it is important to explain to them
that their job is to relate the interviewee's words exactly. If they
have also had a personal experience which they wish to tell you about, let
them know that you can arrange a separate interview with them.
- Avoid using local persons unless absolutely necessary. It can create mistrust
on the part of the interviewee, and may also place the interpreter at risk.
This applies equally to co-detainees, family members and other relatives,
and anyone involved in the situation in any way. Remember in addition that
while family members may be viewed as supportive in certain cultures, in others
it may be highly inappropriate to discuss certain matters in their presence.
For example, it may be culturally taboo for a female victim to discuss sexual
matters in the presence of a male member of her family. If you or your organisation
are of local origin, you should probably already be aware of any sensitivities
- do not forget to take them into account.
- Remember not to switch off during interpretation: even if you are not speaking
directly to the interviewee, it is important to establish a rapport with them
and to show that you are interested in what you are being told.
3.3.6 What can you do to make the interviewee feel
more at ease?
Interviews about very personal experiences, such as ill-treatment, can be extremely
intimidating. You may not have much control over the setting in which the interview
takes place, but even small considerations on your part can help an interviewee
to feel more comfortable.
- Establish as comfortable and private a setting as possible - preferably
alone, unless the interviewee would feel more at ease with someone else present
and that person agrees not to interfere with the conversation.
- If the interview cannot take place in private, try to ensure at least that
others are out of hearing.
- Be aware that your posture and how you sit in relation to the interviewee
can affect how comfortable they feel - for example, in a confined space, leaning
forward may appear threatening, while under other circumstances, not doing
so may convey a lack of interest. Some may prefer to sit closer to the interviewer,
others may be very protective of their personal space or shy away from being
touched. Be aware of your surroundings and observe the body language of the
interviewee to gain a sense of what may be most appropriate in a given case.
- Allow for the possibility of taking breaks.
3.3.7 How can you deal with people who are too afraid
Some interviews may be conducted in a relatively safe place, but in many cases
the surroundings will not be secure. This is particularly the case where interviewees
are still in the custody of the authorities. You cannot ensure their safety
(see Part I, Chapter 2.3, for a general consideration
of security issues), but you can take steps not to place individuals at greater
risk than necessary.
- Make sure that individuals have given their informed consent to the
interview (see Part I, Chapter 2.3).
- Never name individuals alleging ill-treatment to the authorities without
their express consent.
- Avoid identifying individuals, even inadvertently, as being those who have
given you information - for example, in a location with a very small number
of detainees, like a police station, you should make sure to interview all
detainees in the same way, and not to react immediately to allegations in
a way which makes it possible for the authorities to identify the source of
information. If you feel that an issue should be immediately taken up with,
for example, a police station chief, you should first consult with the interviewees,
and should never approach the official without their consent.
- Make it very clear to interviewees that if they or any of their relatives
or friends are subject to intimidation or pressure of any kind as a result
of the information they have provided, they should let you know - give them
a card with your contact details, and emphasise the importance of contacting
- Do your best to follow-up individual cases if you feel they may be at risk
in any way - keep records of all the persons you have interviewed, and ask
for them by name if you are able to carry out subsequent visits.
3.3.8 Are there any special considerations to keep
in mind when conducting interviews in prisons or other places of group custody?
Awareness of group dynamics and prison structures is important when choosing
how to go about interviewing individuals in such an environment.
- Where there is a ward or prisoner representative, it can be helpful to interview
and seek the co-operation of this person first - similarly, there may be a
certain hierarchy among persons in long-term custody which it may be useful
to be aware of.
- If it is feasible, you should try to interview all detainees. In a large
facility, this may not be possible, but you should try at least to interview
a significant group of detainees of a particular category.
- If interviews must be carried out in a ward or dormitory environment, it
can be helpful to begin with a general group interview introducing yourself
and what you are looking for, but you should also interview each individual.
Even if there are others in the same area and privacy is not possible, you
should try to talk to each individual one at a time.
3.3.9 How can you address the sensitivity of the
Interviews about experiences of torture can be very sensitive and painful,
but you can take steps to minimise the risk of re-traumatisation of victims.
- Show regard and respect for the interviewee in your tone, language, and
- Be aware of cultural factors and exercise particular sensitivity towards
- Advise the interviewee about the possibility of obtaining support or a referral.
- Listen and allow expression of personal and family concerns.
- Acknowledge pain and distress, but maintain professional boundaries - do
not create unreasonable expectations that you can respond to their needs.
- Do not press interviewees if they become distressed - be aware that some
victims might not be ready to talk about their experience.
- Where possible, it may be better to carry out several shorter interviews
rather than one long and intensive one.
- Try not to end an interview suddenly without bringing the conversation around
to a less sensitive subject.
3.3.10 What can you do to maximise the reliability
- Avoid leading questions - these are questions which already suggest the
answer you are looking for, e.g. asking 'were you tortured in custody?'
would be a leading question, but 'did anything happen to you?' would
not. It is important that the account given by the interviewee is his own,
- Encourage the interviewee to use his or her own words.
- Avoid the use of lists where possible, as they can lead to inaccuracies
where the items on the list do not correspond exactly to the experience of
- Be aware that inconsistencies do not necessarily mean that an allegation
is false. The interviewee may be confused or have found your question difficult
to understand. You can sometimes resolve inconsistencies by asking the same
question in a different way.
- Observe the interviewee carefully - make a note of your impression of his
or her credibility or otherwise.
3.3.11 Are there any special gender considerations
to take into account when selecting an interviewer or interview team?
There is no strict rule on this point, and it will depend on the individual
interviewee and interviewer. Preferences may be based on cultural or personal
factors. In general, it is better to try to have a female interviewer present
when interviewing a woman, especially if the account is likely to involve sexual
matters. It is less clear-cut with regard to men - they may also prefer to speak
with a woman about sexual matters, but in certain cultures this would be unacceptable.
Do not forget to take into account the gender of the interpreter.
3.3.12 Are there any special considerations to take
into account when interviewing children?
Your primary goal when interviewing children must be to try not to do harm.
It is very different to interviewing adults, and needs to be treated as such.
Interviewers should have some experience of working with children or the effects
of an interview may be more detrimental than the potential benefits. Ideally,
they should have both experience and expertise, and if they have never done
it before, it is advisable to run through a mock interview with another member
of the interview team in order to get a feel for the process. The following
should be borne in mind:
- In addition to, or instead of, being tortured themselves, children may have
been forced to witness the torture of others, particularly parents or close
family members. You should not underestimate the effects which this may have
- It is important to give children a sense of security and support during
the interview. This may be achieved through the presence of a parent, relative
or guardian, or a counsellor if the child has been seeing one.
- It is most important to observe a child's behaviour during the interview:
their ability to express themselves verbally depends on their age and stage
of development, and behaviour may reveal more about what happened to the child
than his or her words.
- Children are particularly sensitive to tiredness and should not be pressed.
- If the child may have been the victim of a physical or sexual assault, an
intimate examination should not be carried out by a non-expert doctor.
- Try to ensure that the child is provided with a support network after the