Author: Yara WHRD Center
In many countries in the region, security agents regularly summon human rights defenders, civil society activists and journalists, either formally through subpoenas or informally without subpoenas and by phone. Increased repression, closure of civic space, and the higher costs associated with activism, including detention and prison, have created a climate of fear and as such many activists prefer to avoid backlash and choose to remain silent when they are summoned formally or informally for interrogation by security forces. Some however choose to share this info with their small and trusted networks or close colleagues.
In this article, we share tips for interrogation regardless of whether the summons is official or informal. These tips are intended for those activists who have no or little interrogation experience, or those who have just recently begun their activism and are working in small and informal groups and initiatives.
Before the interrogation
- You may receive a call from an unknown or private number. If you answer and agree to meet the interrogator at a specific location, make sure you immediately discuss the matter with other members of your group. Make sure to tell them about your impending interrogation, even if the interrogator contacting you on the phone has told you that the meeting is not a big deal and aims to discuss a few minor issues, and there is no need to tell others about the interrogation. It may also be helpful for you to consult a human rights lawyer for advice on what to expect and how to respond to questions during interrogation. Make sure you consult a lawyer who is familiar with the tactics used by security agencies against activists. While the interrogators often do not abide by their own laws, it still helps to know your rights during an interrogation and even remind interrogators of those rights from time to time.
- When summoning you on the phone, and informally, interrogators may suggest meeting them at cafes, restaurants, or hotels for interrogation. You should not accept invitations to informal locations like these and insist that your meeting take place in an official government building or setting. Explain to the interrogator that you are not friends, colleagues or family members and this is not a friendly visit, and as such cafes and restaurants are inappropriate places for such meetings. Do not enter into informal relationships with interrogators. Informal settings and informal relationships will make it difficult for you to take action and speak up in cases when your rights are violated, if interrogators act inappropriately or if you face sexual harassment or abuse. In fact, such developments could put you at a clear disadvantage and in a position of weakness, which security forces will use to their advantage and as a threat against you.
- Experience has proved that security agents usually target one member of each small group and summon them for questioning first. That person could be the most active person or the newest and least experienced person in the group. Do not expect to make sense or understand the thinking behind the special focus on a particular person. You need to understand that security forces are sensitive to all rights defenders and activists and monitor closely their activities.
- If your lawyer can accompany you and be with you during the interrogation session, then make sure you go with your lawyer. Otherwise, we recommend that a family member, a friend, your lawyer, or a member of your initiative or group accompany you to the location of the interrogation, especially if this is your first time being interrogated. While they will not be allowed to accompany you into the interrogation session, their presence outside the building will be a source of comfort to you and will help reduce your anxiety. If for any reason it is not possible for someone to wait for you outside the interrogation location, be sure to inform your colleagues, lawyer or a close friend or family of the exact place and time of the interrogation.
- If the interrogation is being held at an official government location or office, your mobile phone or laptop will be taken away from you upon arrival. We strongly recommend that you do not take your mobile or other devices to interrogation. If you feel you have to take a mobile with you, then please make sure you are taking a mobile phone that is clean (preferably not your usual mobile phone), with no history of chats or text messages, one which does not store contact information for your colleagues and friends. After the interrogation, you should reset the mobile to factory settings in order to remove any tracking software that may have been installed by the security forces while they were in possession of your device.
- Expect different approaches from interrogators, from respectful and polite to violent, threatening, and humiliating interactions. Security forces are skilled at using a variety of methods to either gain your trust or intimidate you with their threatening behavior. It is a challenging situation, but it’s important to remain as calm as possible and to control your reactions to their behavior toward you.
- A common tactic used by interrogators is to claim that they have no problem with you or your activities. They may claim that you are different from other activists, who may have more controversial ideas or approaches to their work or within their private lives and relationships. Keep in mind that this is only a tactic intended to gain your trust, and to coax you to make comments about other activists or to divulge information about their work. During interrogation it is important to refrain from commenting on the personal and private relationships of others or undermining their approaches. It is best that you do not respond to these types of questions or engage in discussions that are intended to undermine other activists. You can just say that you prefer not to gossip or comment on the work of others or that you are not aware of the private relationships of other activists or the approaches they use in their work.
- Interrogators may try to pressure you by divulging information about your own private relationships or life. In these circumstances keep calm, remind yourself that as a human being you have the right to make decisions about your personal relationships and no one has the right to interfere in your private business. You can choose to remain silent in the face of such questions or remind interrogators that by law they have no right to ask you about your personal relationship or lifestyle choices.
- Slandering other activists you may know is also a common tactic that interrogators use, to demoralize you. Interrogators may pretend or claim that others have given them specific information in past interrogations and are actively cooperating with security systems. Do not trust the interrogators and do not accept their words. Interrogators have many ways of gathering information and they do not necessarily get this information through the cooperation of other activists. Keep your spirits up despite these tactics during interrogation.
- You may be asked to provide information in writing about individual activists in your interrogations. Resist doing so. Oftentimes, interrogators will put a list of names in front of you and ask you to write down any information you have about those listed. They intentionally make open-ended requests like this, with the aim of obtaining as much information as possible from those being interrogated who may feel pressured and stressed during interrogation. Even if you know a person they are asking you to write about, do not share any information about them during interrogation. It is not your duty to help the security forces gather information against you or others. If for any reason, you cannot resist this request, provide readily available information about individuals, like their age, what they studied in university, their occupation, etc.
- Resist offers by interrogators or security officials to cooperate with them, by spying on others in your sector or providing them with information about the work of others in the movement. If you assume that by cooperating in this way you will temporarily free yourself from the pressure of the interrogation session, or that you will not be arrested, you are mistaken. A positive response to cooperation will put you at a serious disadvantage that the interrogators will continue to exploit. It will be very difficult for you to disengage from such a relationship.
12. After each interrogation session, discuss the issues discussed in the interrogation with your group members and colleagues.
13. You may not always be able to resist questions about others in interrogation and may have been forced to provide information that may incriminate or damage others. In such cases, it is best to inform those persons about whom you provided information, so they can be prepared in case they are called into interrogation. The need to inform others and to help them avoid harm or to prepare for possible interrogation, should be viewed by all activists as a moral responsibility and an important tactic critical to ensuring the survival of our movements.
14. If a member of your group or a colleague in the movement informs you that they were forced to provide compromising information about you in interrogation, try to be understanding and react appropriately. Interrogations can be difficult and complicated, and anyone may make mistakes during interrogation. Our anger and rage should be directed at the security systems that do not tolerate peaceful activism and are opposed to social justice efforts. It is the security system that puts us in these difficult situations and our social activism is in fact intended to change these dynamics.
15. After the interrogation, record the questions and your answers and keep them in a safe place. Experience has shown that interrogators may summon you several times during the year or even in subsequent years, and repeat the same questions to find contradictions in your responses. Surprisingly after several interrogations, you may find it difficult to remember precisely what you mentioned in each interrogation session. Therefore, recording the questions and answers shortly after interrogations can prepare you for recurring interrogations within a year or several years apart.
In future articles, we will discuss interrogations during detention (in prisons and detention centers). Also, citing legal cases, we will discuss how to defend yourself against various charges.