Happy birthday, CPT!

Today marks the 25th anniversary of Europe’s premier torture prevention body: the Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT). The CPT is made up of one expert from each of the 47 countries of the Council of Europe, and travels around the continent inspecting places of detention. These include psychiatric hospitals and social care institutions. It has an important role in pushing governments to end abusive practices against people who are deprived of their liberty.


The CPT monitors places where people are detained. Picture: Ludvik Hradilek, Aktuálně.cz


  • When no-one was visiting institutions in Estonia in 1997, the CPT visited the Valkla social care institution and found it “pervaded by a pernicious culture of violence, where discipline and control were entrusted to staff having no specialised training, who in turn delegated many of the more challenging tasks (e.g. working with agitated or disturbed patients) to other patients”. By 2002 it noted that the authorities had clamped down on this violence. The Estonian government hid the first report, only authorising its publication at the same time as the 2002 publication. Despite these political games, life had improved for the inmates at Valkla.
  • The CPT has documented practices which vary greatly across the continent in settings where people are deprived of their liberty. For example, prison authorities in the Czech Republic erroneously believe in the efficacy of surgically castrating sex offenders. The practice happens in Germany too, and the CPT’s loud interventions in both countries resulted in public debates which may not otherwise have happened.
  • The CPT often uncovers embarrassing tricks by the authorities to hide ill-treatment. In December 2003 the CPT carried out a periodic visit to Bulgaria. Its mission included a trip to the Pastra social care institution where it found that the inside temperature at midday was 12oC. In Block 3 an inmate called Rusi Stanev was kept. Here the CPT found “somewhat better heating,” although “residents indicated that it had been on all the time since the delegation’s arrival.” It was the CPT’s report which became crucial evidence in Mr Stanev’s case before the European Court of Human Rights.


The CPT has played an instrumental role in opening doors to otherwise closed systems of psychiatry and social care across Europe. In its next phase of development, MDAC recommends to the CPT to carry out the following three actions.

  1. In each country visit, the CPT should always visit psychiatric and social care institutions. A decision to prioritise prisons over other places of detention makes little sense and goes against international human rights norms of non-discrimination. Despite compelling evidence of ill-treatment in Hungary’s mental health system, for example, the CPT failed to visit any such institutions in its visit in 2013. This has allowed the Hungarian government to continue to continue its policy of institutionalisation.
  1. The CPT should update the standards against which it carries out inspections. These standards are lagging behind established rights. For example, the CPT regards as a “favourable development” (paragraph 58 of its Standards) the closure of large institutions and roll out of community support options. In law, living in the community is now firmly established as an enforceable right. The CPT should get up to speed with what is now a decade-old provision (Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities). The standards should not be re-written behind closed doors, but through a transparent process of public consultation.
  1. The CPT should embrace expertise by experience. Whenever issues of mental health are to be discussed, the CPT turns to the expertise of psychiatrists. Despite relying on evidence submitted to it in confidence from civil society organisations, the CPT rarely draws on this expertise when drafting its reports to countries. The CPT should develop a pool of experts by experience: people who have experienced as users (ex patients, prisoners, refugees and so on) the sorts of institutions the CPT visits.


Read more:

  • Anti-torture committee: 25 years preventing ill-treatment and torture - click here
  • MDAC uncovered cage beds in Czech psychiatric hospitals during 2014 - click here


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