Deadly Restraints Are a Stain on the EU
The continued use of lethal restraints, as in the case of Iliass Tahiri in Spain, damages the bloc’s human rights advocacy around the world.
Blurry security camera footage showed the guards carrying the teenager into a cramped room, with his hands bound behind his back. Thirteen minutes later, he was dead.
Iliass Tahiri was just 18 years old when he was strapped face down to a bed by six security staff in a center for juvenile offenders in Andalusia, Spain. Two of the men knelt on his back until he stopped breathing. Tahiri’s death in July 2019 was declared accidental by a judge in January, but the footage of his last moments—released by the Spanish newspaper El País in June—has called that decision into question.
Tahiri’s family is now calling for homicide charges against the guards, and the use of straps will likely be used as a legal defense to argue that his death was not deliberate. But more broadly, the physical restraints that contributed to his death remain widely used in law enforcement and mental health settings throughout the European Union.
Several EU countries present themselves as world leaders in human rights. The EU reacted forcefully to the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, and politicians are quick to condemn violence on the part of law enforcement often framed as uniquely American. But the dangerous use of body weight and strap restraints remains common in Denmark, France, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. The recourse to involuntary restraint for minor infractions or disturbances is at odds with the EU’s long-standing positions on human rights, undermining its advocacy around the world.
The conversation around Tahiri’s death reflects a growing debate in the European Union about police brutality against minorities—Tahiri was born in Morocco—and the continued use of deadly restraints against suspected criminals, ethnic minorities, and the mentally ill. In too many EU countries, anyone considered an imminent danger to themselves or others can be targeted for violent restraint.
In France, debate about the use of deadly police chokeholds has raged since the death in January of Cédric Chouviat, a 42-year-old deliveryman who was pinned to the ground while still wearing a motorcycle helmet and went into cardiac arrest as a result. The officers involved have been charged with manslaughter, though Chouviat’s family is calling for murder charges. Meanwhile, law enforcement officials succeeded in postponing a proposed ban following the incident. “Substitution techniques” are due to be announced in September.
In the United Kingdom, 10 percent of deaths in police custody were attributed to the use of restraints between 2004 and 2015, including straps. The sister of Sheku Bayoh, a man who choked to death in 2015 in Scotland while being restrained by police, said that Floyd’s case had shocking similarities with her brother’s—down to the men’s last words: “I can’t breathe.”
In Spain, Tahiri was the third teenager to die while subjected to mechanical restraint, or restraint with a belt and straps, in the past decade. Mechanical restraint is supposed to be a measure of last resort, but it was used at least 360 times in Andalusia’s youth detention centers in 2017 and 2018, according to official data. Spanish youth detention centers restrain juveniles to beds for hours for infractions such as jumping into a swimming pool without permission or declining to undress for religious reasons. Tahiri’s detention center said he struggled violently with the guards, but the video footage shows him limp in their arms.
As young men move into adult prisons, the use of mechanical restraints becomes more common. “There are so many cases of [mechanical restraint] combined with ill-treatment, of people being beaten,” said Christian Loda of the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT), recalling a visit to several Spanish prisons in 2016.
Inmates reported being beaten on the soles of their feet while tied down. “This really falls into the category of what may amount to torture, because the [mechanical restraint] lasted in some cases up to a couple of weeks without interruption,” Loda said.
A lack of training and rigid protocols play a role in the overuse of restraints against vulnerable offenders in Spain—sometimes with lethal results. The Association for the Management of Social Integration (Ginso), the private company that runs the juvenile detention center where Tahiri died, has received complaints of abuse for years. When ex-employees released images of children strapped to beds, Ginso pursued them in court under right-to-privacy legislation. The security guards at Tierras de Oria received just 10 hours of training in surveillance before starting work in the juvenile center, according to a 2016 report.
“There is a lack of transparency and accountability in these centres, which is extremely problematic, and there is not sufficient human rights and conflict prevention training for guards and other workers,” Sira Rego, a Spanish deputy in the European Parliament, wrote in an email to Foreign Policy.
Holding or tying a person down against their will usually occurs in two contexts: law enforcement and psychiatric settings. In the EU, there is significant overlap between law enforcement and mental health interventions. Around 10 to 15 percent of Europe’s prison population suffers from severe mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or autistic disorders, compared with 1.3 percent of people across the whole EU population.
The use of restraints in clinical settings is also common throughout Europe, though it generally receives less criticism due to the perceived risk of patients to themselves and others. One of the harshest places in Europe for the mentally ill is Denmark. The CPT recently criticized a Danish mental hospital where one patient was kept strapped to a bed for 13 months.
In mental-health institutions in England, 2,875 people were held down by staff in a face-down position—considered to be dangerous—and 7,399 people were subjected to other physical restraint in 2018 and 2019, according to figures shared with Foreign Policy by the British mental health charity Mind. Black and multiracial people were subjected to these measures at rates three times higher than white people.
A small number of psychiatrists now question whether violent restraint is morally justified, including in law enforcement settings, but imagining a mental hospital where restraints are never used is difficult for most clinicians. “The culture and environment of wards can create the situations where restraint is used,” said Alison Cobb, a specialist policy advisor at Mind.
Overcrowding, arbitrary rules, and closed wards increase the likelihood of agitation and the recourse to restraints. “Reducing the use of restraint starts with getting the quality of care right,” Cobb said.
In one corner of northeastern Italy, mental health institutions have not tied down a patient in decades, and clinicians there say the police should follow their example.
Roberto Mezzina, who recently retired from running the mental health department of the city of Trieste’s public health system, subscribes to a school of thought founded by the Italian psychiatrist Franco Basaglia. Basaglia believed in a “whole life” intervention for the mentally ill, which led to the permanent closure of Italy’s mental hospitals by a 1978 law still associated with his name. During his five-decade career, Mezzina never put a patient into a restraint, he said.
In Trieste, mental-health professionals have refined Basaglia’s model of talking therapies, family involvement, and a focus on employment and social inclusion. In the Friuli Venezia Giulia region, walk-in mental health centers are open 24 hours a day. Italy has the lowest rate of involuntary treatment in Europe—and in Trieste, mental health centers never use restraints, according to Mezzina. Mental health professionals are called to scenes of self-harm or violence, not police, and can spend hours negotiating with vulnerable citizens. “People are treated with the highest level of respect in a negotiation,” Mezzina said.
Mezzina said that the Basaglia approach should also be used by law enforcement in Italy and beyond, adding that those suspected of crimes, the mentally ill, and the disabled should not lose their rights when they come into contact with the authorities. Mezzina is particularly critical of the U.K.’s risk assessment culture, which leaves little room for clinical judgment.
“They just follow the procedures. And that’s a terrible thing, especially because now it’s supported by another defensive attitude, which is to protect staff in mental health and police staff,” Mezzina said—rather than minimizing risk through speaking “like two human beings.”
The Basaglia method has so far only been used to inform police forces studying de-escalation and negotiation rather than applied toward wholesale reform. For mental health clinicians outside of Italy, it is considered quixotic and even idealistic.
But for the Tahiris and Chouviats of Europe, any reforms concerning the use of restraints will come too late.