Moroccan teen's death in custody sparks reform push in Spain

Ilyas al-Taheri died after security staff strapped him to a bed using practice denounced by rights groups as dangerous.

    Anass al-Taheri, 22, holds a picture of himself and his brother Ilyass at his home in San Roque, Spain [Jorge Guerrero/AFP]
    Anass al-Taheri, 22, holds a picture of himself and his brother Ilyass at his home in San Roque, Spain [Jorge Guerrero/AFP]

    A leaked video showing the death of a Moroccan teenager at a Spanish juvenile detention centre has sparked demands for his case to be reopened and the method used to restrain him banned.

    Ilyas al-Taheri, 18, died by asphyxiation on July 1, 2019, at the Tierras de Oria detention facility in Spain's southern Almeria province after security staff strapped him to a bed, using a procedure denounced by rights groups as dangerous.

    Police opened an inquiry at the time, but the case was closed after a judge ruled it an "accidental" death.
    However, CCTV footage of al-Tahiri's last moments in which he shows no signs of violence - a requisite for authorities to resort to such restraint - was leaked to a Spanish newspaper.

    "If you see the video, you'll never believe it was accidental as the judge said," his brother Anass al-Taheri, 22, told AFP news agency.

    "The video shows how they killed him. It's murder," said Anass, whose family has lodged an official appeal against the case's dismissal.

    'Illegal' protocol

    Published by El Pais, the footage emerged as global protests raged following the death of George Floyd in the US when a policeman knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes.

    The video's authenticity has been confirmed by a spokeswoman for Ginso, the private company managing the Tierras de Oria detention centre.

    Within a week of its publication, the Spanish ombudsman's office called for the abolition of such procedures in juvenile detention facilities.

    On June 18, the Almeria public prosecutor's office asked for the case to be reopened, denouncing as "illegal" the protocol for using such restraint.

    Al-Taheri's case centres on "mechanical restraint" - strapping a person to a bed so they cannot hurt themselves or anyone else - but can only be used if they are agitated, aggressive or violent.

    'Unnecessary aggression'

    In the video, six men roughly wrestle al-Taheri on to a bed face-down, at one point kneeling on his buttocks to tighten a strap around his waist - eventually realising he was no longer breathing.

    Al-Taheri, who arrived in Spain in 2017, was placed in juvenile detention over "some problems in the street", his brother said.

    He had been held at Tierras de Oria for two months when he died. The day before, the teenager was visited by his mother and told her he had been subjected to threats and abuse, Anass recalled.

    "He wanted her to get a lawyer to get him out because he'd reached the point that he'd rather be in prison than in that centre," he said, adding his brother had been on suicide watch.

    A Spanish National Police officer stands guard outside Atocha train station after it was reopened in Madrid
    Andalusia's Human Rights Association says mechanical restraint is 'standard practice' in juvenile centres [File: Susana Vera/Reuters]

    Ginso said: "The need for the restraint procedure was demonstrated [during the investigation] as was its correct application by staff who complied scrupulously with the protocol," adding its use was "exceptional" and only undertaken with the "minimum necessary force".

    But Andalusia's Human Rights Association (APDHA) said mechanical restraint is "standard practice" in juvenile centres, where it is often used for discipline or punishment.

    "What the video shows is a grossly disproportionate use of force given Ilyass' attitude, involving completely unnecessary aggression and violence when he was restrained," said APDHA's Francisco Fernandez Caparros.

    "Clearly, his death occurred while they were applying the restraints... It was this situation of stress and violence that killed him," he said.

    Two other youngsters have died after being restrained: one in Madrid in 2011 and another in Spain's Melilla enclave in 2018.

     

    Swift reaction

    Ombudsman Francisco Fernandez Marugan called on the government to change the law.

    "A swift and radical decision is needed that will end the use of mechanical restraints once and for all," he said. "Nobody else must die in these circumstances in Spain."

    The Almeria public prosecutor also ordered that all such restraints be "immediately" suspended.

    The restraint protocol puts youngsters "at serious unjustified risk", and where that results in injury, those responsible for approving such procedures will be held criminally liable, it said in a legal document.

    The regional justice ministry declined to comment on the prosecutor's statement. But a spokeswoman said it would "respect and abide by" all judicial decisions.

    The closing of the al-Taheri case "is currently being appealed", she said.

    Last week, the Arab Culture Foundation in Spain announced it was willing to be a civil party in the case pending its reopening.

    Al-Taheri was subjected to "inhuman treatment before his death by asphyxiation", the foundation said in a statement.

    "The issue is related to a premeditated murder that was fueled by hatred and racism and not by an accidental violent death, as the Borchima Town Court ruled last January."

    The foundation also called on the Almeria Court to "change its standards and issue a model ruling on this incident".

    No investigation

    According to Andalusian opposition legislator Maribel Mora, the regional government did not hold an inquiry after al-Taheri's death or check how the procedure was being used in centres under its jurisdiction.

    In 2016, the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture visited Tierras de Oria and denounced its restraint procedure as a "disproportionate use of force", urging regional governments to halt the practice, Mora said.

    Despite the call, mechanical restraints were used 360 times in the region's 16 juvenile centres in the following two years, official figures show.

    "Whether or not they reopen the case, it is clear something is going very wrong, and the [regional] government needs to respond and take responsibility for this," said Mora.

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies