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Women and the antiterrorist law

Basque Observatory of Human Rights | 30.06.2004 15:24 | Analysis | Repression | Terror War

Arrest and jail conditions of women detained under antiterrorist laws in the Spanish state

States have created new laws and regulations due to what they call the “struggle against terrorism”, breaching fundamental rights in the name of public safety. The Spanish state is not an exception to the rule.

When talking about the human rights violations and special laws for matters of “terrorism” in the Spanish state, it is important to consider the question of women, the specific breaches of rights that takes place in the case of women, both when they are arrested and taken to police premises and in those instances when they are sent to prison.

Upon writing this report we have taken into account the cases of women arrested under antiterrorist laws, their accounts of their arrest and their current situation in Spanish jails.

Women and Torture

People arrested under antiterrorist laws suffer different treatment to other people from the very moment of arrest, because these people are placed under incommunicado detention (i.e. they are not allowed any contact with the outside, their families and lawyers are given no information about their whereabouts or state...). This incommunicado detention may last for up to five days; although the law states the extension from three to five days is to be applied in exceptional cases, the facts show that the maximum duration is used as a rule. The judge grants the extension in a practically automatic way, systematically denying application of the habeas corpus procedure. This procedure is requested by the defence when there are fears about the way the detainee is being treated, requesting he or she to be immediately taken before the judge.

When we use the term `torture´we refer to the definition contained in article 1 of the UN Declaration for the Protection of all Persons From Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Therefore, we mean serious suffering inflicted upon a person, whether physical or psychological, by a public officer or a person exercising public duties.

Torture methods are scientifically studied in order to achieve the set aims more efficiently. These especially seek the psychological destruction of the person being tortured.

Women are especially vulnerable to torture and one usually finds that, as well as the “usual methods” of torture used against men, they are subjected to all kinds of sexual abuse more often than men. Thus, women are subjected to “special methods” of torture due to their gender, seeking an even further degradation of the person. We do not mean to say that men are not at times subjected to sexual torture, rather, that it mostly takes place when women are tortured. Therefore, we do not mean that women are tortured more, but that the torture used against them is “different”.

Methods of torture used against women

We can observe how the treatment of women is often different from the very moment of arrest. A specific mention must be made to the treatment given to women detainees in the media due to the very fact that she is a woman. As well as the usual breach of the right to be presumed innocent, when a woman is arrested for what are called charges of “terrorism”, various aspects of their sexuality are discussed, which does not happen in the case of men (for instance, we have the cases of Idoia Lopez Riaño, Ana Lizarralde...)

From the moment of arrest, the detainee receives threats about rape and these threats continue throughout interrogation, causing the woman to be in constant tension, fearing the moment of rape is round the corner. Women detainees are nearly always interrogated naked and they are touched all over their bodies, they are made to spread their legs, etc. interrogation is usually carried out by male police officers, making that compulsory nakedness even more intimidating (when female police officers appear in interrogation sessions, it is usually in order to threaten the detainee with removal of her children’s custody).
Women are psychologically degraded, insulted... the torturers seek to humiliate the woman, to destroy her physical and mental integrity. Such serious sexual abuse leaves a deep mark upon the women, affecting their sexual identity and their relationships after they have been released from police custody.
Through the accounts compiled by the Group Against Torture – TAT – during recent years, we have been able to observe the different methods of torture used by the various police forces operating in the Basque Country. We would like to underline the fact that many of these women suffered this kind of treatment throughout the five days and nights they were kept under incommunicado detention.

Through these accounts we can ascertain that many of the methods used occur repeatedly and that they have become more sophisticated over time in order to increase effectiveness and make detection more difficult. Thus, we have seen how the victim is beaten while wrapped in a blanket, the torturers attempting at all times not to leave any marks, even using creams and salves; as well as how torturers refrain from using physical ill-treatment during the final two days of arrest, using psychological torture more, which, according to the women’s' accounts, can be even worse than physical torture.
Due to the lack of visible physical marks, the victims often find that torture is not investigated by the authorities in those instances when, overcoming the fear caused by the threats they received in police custody, they dare to make a complaint to the court. In the few cases when police have been tried for torturing detainees, they have very seldom been convicted, and even in these cases, they have later received pardons.

The specificity we find in the kind of torture suffered by women has to do with the sexual abuse and humiliation that take place during the period of incommunicado detention. As we stated above, women are kept naked at all times (intentionality of that nakedness) and suffer being touched and felt up constantly while they are made to do press-ups, while they are beaten...

They suffer constant rape threats, “they said `from now on we shall play a new game, spread your legs!´”, “when I was down on all fours, they asked me if I had ever done it like that, they asked whether I used lubricating gel and began to discuss whether they would put something into me or maybe one of them would feel up to it. They poured something on my anus...” threats of being made pregnant, “they said there were three of them and one was HIV positive but they would rape me in turn, so if I caught the disease or became pregnant I wouldn’t be able to accuse any one of them” or barren “they told me to forget about ever having children”, “they threatened me many times saying that I would not be able to have any children, or if I did, they would be children of the Guardia Civil”, or threats about their children “they made comments saying they would keep my child, they said how had I possibly `got into all that trouble´when I had a child; they said I was a bad mother...” making them choose between various torture methods, “they made me choose between the broomstick or one of them”, suffering insults of a sexual nature constantly, being humiliated by comments about their bodies, “they said I was a fat, ugly slob...”, “one of them told me to pull my trousers back up because he was disgusted at what he saw”, or about their sexuality, “little whore, you spread your legs really easily” always seeking to degrade the person and the woman as much as possible, as well as the “usual” methods of torture used on men.

Women who become the victims of this kind of treatment in police custody suffer deep wounds that cannot be seen of the surface. We mean psychological damage, of course. Although the wounds may be cured in time, the women will need all the help they can get from those close to them, they will need counselling to gradually overcome their experience in the police station. However, some of these women
Must also face going to jail after such a traumatic experience, with all the consequences of incarceration stemming from the Spanish penitentiary system, which we shall now analyse.

Women and Jail
When talking about the general situation of women in jail, we must refer to the specific situation of Basque women prisoners, who are subjected to a specific set of rules containing exceptional measures. The most remarkable of these measures is undoubtedly the policy of dispersal. This policy, whereby prisoners are moved to jails far away from their homes in the Basque Country begun in 1987, but has most widely been applied since 1989. Women prisoners are often subjected to the policy of dispersal even if they have not been tried, while still under preventive incarceration, which makes their living conditions in jail very difficult even if they have not been convicted.

This different and specific treatment applied to Basque prisoners due to political motives or circumstances is contrary to Organic Law 1/1979 of September 26, the Spanish General Penitentiary Law and the UN Set of Principles for the protection of all persons subjected to any form of detention or imprisonment, all of which include a ban on discriminating people for political reasons.

Living conditions inside the jails depend on several variables such as the penitentiary policies of the time, the actual prison or even the specific wing or block within the prison.

Another significant variable is the prisoner’s gender, which certainly determines conditions during incarceration. This gender specificity is the main concern in this report. The differentiation of women from men in jail is mainly present in two aspects: the greater level of isolation these women must face and the level of discrimination they suffer due to the premises and the penitentiary system itself. We must not forget that jails in the Spanish state were designed by men and for men. These women therefore face a form of structural discrimination.

“We must look for the basis of many of the problems we have found in the blocks for women in the structure of the building itself.” These are the words of the Basque Regional Ombudsman in a report about Langraitz jail, in Araba, published in 1999.

One of the main problems women face upon being sent to jail is that not only do they not find adequate facilities, but the penitentiary system itself becomes an obstacle course when they attempt to exercise their rights.

When we talk about women prisons, with the exception of the Brieva prison for women (in Avila) and the recently converted Alcalá-Mujeres (in Madrid) and the new macro prisons (Soto del Real), we mean centres that have been designed as prisons for men, within which a small area has been set apart for women. This means that most of the facilities (infirmary, school, gym, classrooms...) are in the men’s area, therefore the women have no access to these services or will have to use them during the hours the men are not using them (such as the men’s afternoon nap)

The courtyards are usually minuscule, and this becomes evident in older prisons where the women’s area is usually a converted area that originally was not intended to house anyone (converted storehouses, closed-off courtyards...)

There are many cases when, due to the lack of space, rooms that were intended for services have to be used for other functions. The sexist character of the few classes or courses the women are allowed access to must also be underlined; they are usually only sewing, macramé, etc. classes.

Thus, most prisons have been designed for men and the spaces for women inside those prisons lack the most essential facilities. When a woman needs to see a doctor or a gynaecologist, she is taken to a medical centre outside the prison, kept handcuffed the whole time and often suffering the presence of Guardia Civil officers in the room. Even in those jails that were originally designed for women, gynaecological services are not considered a necessary service to which women must have access inside the prison and is therefore dependent upon voluntaries who go to the prison to visit the women (and this, of course varies, a jail that once had a volunteer gynaecologist may not have one later on etc.)

As far as life inside the prison is concerned, it varies depending on the moment, new rules, a change in the director, etc. For instance one of the most recent rules applied against Basque prisoners is limiting friends visits to ten people, a list of ten people, which then of course must be passed by the authorities. It is obvious that being allowed visits from only ten friends means that the prisoner will lose contact with many people and for those ten people, it entails the responsibility of ensuring that the prisoner will not miss any of the weekly visits. Another recent rule is to consider only first-degree relatives as family. Therefore, the prisoner’s grandmother, for example, will have to request a visit the same as if she were a friend. There have even been cases when the prisoner’s lawyer’s visit has been counted as a visit by a friend.

Another important aspect of life inside jail is the absolute lack of intimacy (all communications are recorded or photocopied), although this is not applied only to women.


A specific mention must be made to those women who have to give birth while in jail or had young children at the time of incarceration. Although Spanish law recognises the right of women to remain with their child until they become three years old, we can see how this right is not guaranteed in the least. Many women have to give up living with their children in jail because the prisons do not ensure even the minimal living conditions for a child. For a start, there is not a single jail with a block for mothers with children in the Basque Country (therefore, it is impossible for mother and child to be together in the Basque Country) and the only two jails designed for women in the Spanish state (Brieva and Alcalá-Mujeres) do not have a block for mothers with babies either.

Mother and child will have to be in a jail that is distant from their social and emotional environment, which causes a situation of defencelessness. The case of Maitane Sagastume is an example of this. She was held in Martutene prison (in the Basque Country) while she was pregnant, but when she gave birth to her child Onditz she was moved to Dueñas (in Palencia) and told that the reason was that Martutene had no block for mothers with children. Dueñas prison does not have this kind of block either. Although in theory women are allowed to keep their children with them until they become three years old, Maitane had to renounce to this right because the living conditions in jail were extremely inappropriate for a child.

We currently have the case of Basque prisoner Ainhoa Gutierrez and her daughter Araitz, who was born in January 2002. The penitentiary authorities decided they should be held in Granada prison. Visits (both with relatives and with her partner, who is in the same jail) take place through a glass window. The visits are very uncomfortable because mother and daughter only have one phone to talk to their relatives, although in the case of visits with the child’s father it is not as bad because it is he who must use the phone in the visit-booth. As to the diet, Araitz is not provided a specific breakfast and must have a little of the coffee and doughnut her mother is given. There is no possibility of buying milk and they are only given a choice of pasta, lentils, boiled potatoes or rice plus a yoghurt for lunch.

The courtyard is made of cement; there are no swings or no play areas for children. The cells are 2 by 4 metres (6 by 12 yards). The doors are electric and have no safety mechanisms, guards do not check if there is anyone in the way before closing them. Every time the prisoners are counted, which coincide with the child’s feeding times, they must move close to the guards’ tower. The doors make a terrible noise when they are closed and scare the children.


The information contained in this report is cause for serious concern. Women, as we have seen, are treated differently right from the moment of arrest and the differentiated treatment continues in jail. This is a breach of human and civil rights recognised in International Law and the commitments made to the latter by the Spanish state.

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