Torture and other forms of ill-treatment may take place in virtually any location. People are particularly at risk when they are deprived of their liberty, held in pre-trial detention, before the person has access to a lawyer or court. People being held in incommunicado detention — without access to anyone in the outside world — are particularly vulnerable.
In some countries, torture is commonplace. Certain times and situations could, however, be considered as high-risk circumstances. These include conflict zones, and situations of political unrest or general violce.
Allegations of torture can come from a variety of sources and at different time. The primary source of information is clearly from the individuals themselves, and this could happen while invustody, immediately after release, or at a later date. The families of survivors are another extremely important source of information as the survivors of torture themselves may be unable, or unwilling, to speak out. In any of the descriptions below, the role of families should also be kept in mind. Information can also come from other sources, such as the media and the work of non-governmental organizations.
Health professionals may find themselves being called upon to assist with an investigation in addition to providing medical treatment. Documentation may range from clear, comprehensive notes that may be summarized later, to a full medico-legal report. Sometimes useful evidence can be gained from analyzing clinical data on survivors of torture and presenting them in a way that does not permit individuals to be identified.
Detainees are probably the segment of the population most likely to suffer torture and other ill-treatment since this kind of abuse is usually inflicted while an indivudial is in some form of custody. The greatest risk of torture and other forms of ill-treatment to individuals is in the first phase of arrest and detention, before they have access to a lawyer or court. Furthermore, incommunicado detention, which prohibits access to anyone such as their lawyer or family, is probably the single highest risk factor for torture since there is not external monitoring of the detention and interrogation process.
It should also be remembered that while torture per se is less common once a person is on remand or sentenced and in prison, deliberately poor conditions of detention, certain treatment or punishments inflicted by staff, or a failure to protect individuals from other prisoners, may also amount to forms of ill-treatment or, in some cases, torture.