Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Surrency Prize to Pihlajamaki on Torture in Sweden

Surrency Prize Committee of the American Society for Legal History has announced its selection for 2008. Here is the announcement:
The Surrency Prize, named in honor of Erwin Surrency, a founding member of the Society and for many years the editor of its publication the American Journal of Legal History, is awarded annually, on the recommendation of the Surrency Prize Committee, to the person or persons who wrote the best article published in the Society's journal, the Law and History Review, in the previous year.

This year's Surrency Prize is awarded to Hekki Pihlajamaki for his essay, "The Painful Question: The Fate of Judicial Torture in Early Modern Sweden," a piece that appeared in the third number of Volume 25 of Law and History Review. This year's Surrency Prize Committee quickly came to consensus around Pihlajamaki's elegant and original article for three reasons. First, it connects debates over torture to developments in criminal procedure and politics. Second, it situates torture among other forms of coercive pressure in the pretrial process and among other forms of punishment. Third, above all, it compares the Swedish case to England and Continental Europe broadly and ambitiously. While the article tells us much about Sweden, it also uses Sweden as a comparison case to reflect on Continental and English historiography on the compelling issue of judicial torture. Sixteenth-century Swedish courts carefully distinguished judicial torture, which meant torture explicitly ordered and supervised by the courts, from hard prison, which consisted of "handcuffing and hanging the suspect up on the wall to make him or her confess." Judicial torture was administered by upper-lever courts staffed by professionals, as opposed to the lower lay courts; it was a judicial "fact" finding method to extract "the truth." For this and other reasons, Pihlajamaki argues, judicial torture was never legal in Sweden. Yet some forms of physical coercion were clearly employed against persons suspected of certain crimes or, more likely, of belonging to the political opposition, but this sort of persuasion took place mostly at the highest levels of monarchical authority. The prohibition of torture towards the end of the seventeenth century, Pihlajamaki notes, required both the creation of "other methods of ensuring criminal responsibility" and the emergence of a state strong enough to regulate and prohibit the practice. As he deftly summarizes, "It makes a difference whether torture was large-scale, systematic, and based on legal literature and a common notion of legality, as it was in Germany, France, and the other major ius commune regions of Europe, or whether torture was illegal, unsystematic, and exceptional, as was the case of Sweden and England" It is no less a part of this author's accomplishment that he reminds us that torture is a "changing, historical category."
Hat tip: H-Law