Girls and boys. They go by no name, but their faces are marked by scars from bayonets, whips or knives. Some escaped hatred and indifferent smugglers, others survived shipwrecks and overcame barbed regulations protecting the borders.
(All photos are kindly provided by Pierre Duterte)
In his latest photo book, Le Phototherapeute, French author and medical doctor, Pierre Duterte paints a portrait of young victims of torture through his conversations with one of them, a patient known as “Junior”.
Like Junior, the children have escaped countries riddled with war and conflict. Safe in France, they no longer fear for their lives, but being alone in a strange country, they are met by a new threat: the loss of identity. Confronted with a new language and a new culture, they are lonely souls with no family nor friends to turn to.
As Duterte writes, battling traumatic memories that have since turned into nightmares, they risk becoming the forgotten children in a society that believes it has met its duties by giving them a place to stay and food to eat.
Duterte has worked with torture victims for more than 20 years and throughout his career, he has treated thousands of clients. In 2007, he released a book about his experiences as a therapist working with torture victims.
In Le Phototherapeute, Duterte, who is also a photographer, uses photos of nameless children to illustrate the complexities of his patients. As to reiterate that Junior could have been any of the young victims of torture he has met, the book has no photos of Junior.
Perhaps frustrated with the way that institutions have failed to treat these children, Duterte points to the trauma and horror that young victims of torture struggle with, before and after their escape. With his patients in mind, he describes the unexpected effects of placing the young shattered souls in front of a mirror. Looking at themselves, some of them are unable to recognise their own reflection.
Le Phototherapeute gives the reader an insight into the troubled life of young torture survivors and what it takes to restore both their physical and mental health. It is a compelling read that also serves as a reminder to us that these children have a very lengthy rehabilitation process ahead of them and that they need all the support they can get. If we have any hopes of them recognising themselves in the mirror we need to start by helping them rebuild their identity and escape their nightmares.
To find out more about Le Phototherapeute, click here.
The release of Australian journalist Peter Greste, and a new report by Human Rights Watch has once again turned the world’s attention to Egypt’s poor human rights record. This time focus is on the country’s prisons and its inhumane treatment of political prisoners.
After 400 days in prison charged with supporting a “terrorist organisation”, a farcical trial and an international outcry, Peter Greste from Al-Jazeera was finally released from Egypt’s Tora prison this month. Despite the relief of being free again, Greste called for the release of his two colleagues, his producer Mohamed Fahmy, and cameraman Bahar Mohamed, both of whom remain behind bars.
Like Peter Greste, the two were given heavy sentences for disseminating “false news” and purportedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which won Egypt’s first democratic elections.
Sadly, their story is not at all unique. News outlets report of tens of thousands of political prisoners detained in Egyptian prisons. As most of these prisoners cannot claim dual citizenship, their future is one of much uncertainty and despair.
Torture and Abuse
The staggering number of political prisoners is just one side of Egypt’s problem. Despite the constitution banning torture and abuse of detainees, the practice is widespread in Egyptian prisons.
As the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) points out, history shows that the Egyptian military and police disregard the rule of law and have systematically used extreme violence and torture in their repressive tactics. IRCT’s human rights partners in the region have for years documented the systematic torture of those detained by military and police forces.
According to Amnesty International, torture is routinely practiced in police stations and unofficial places of detention, with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters particularly targeted.
Amnesty International also reports that there has been a surge in arbitrary arrests, detentions and harrowing incidents of torture and deaths in police custody in the past couple of years.
Last year, British newspaper The Guardian revealed that since July 2013 at least 400 people had been tortured and held outside of judicial oversight in a secret military prison.
A recent report by Human Rights Watch criticising the Egyptian authorities, detailed scores of detainees suffering and even dying while in government custody, but human rights defenders all agree that the number of casualties is likely to be much higher than that.
Preventing torture in prisons and other places of detention is not an easy task with so few perpetrators brought to justice. Of all torture complaints in Egypt, only a very few reach the courts due to institutional barriers to justice.
The independent Egyptian human rights law firm United Group released a report in which it described how it had interviewed 465 alleged victims of police torture and that it had filed 163 complaints, of which only seven reached the courts.
Sadly, this hopeless and grim situation is unlikely to change any time soon.
Amid continuous reporting on Peter Greste’s release, an Egyptian court sentenced 183 people to death, 34 of whom were not even present for the trial. If this verdict is anything to go by, Egypt is not reforming its prison and justice system. Instead, it appears determined to continue down this dangerous path, ignoring international human rights law.
Peter Greste’s story offers some relief in an otherwise desperate time. After 400 days in captivity, he is back in Australia. Still behind bars, however, are the tens of thousands of political prisoners. They know about the unjust trials and what police brutality feels like. Now they face the prospect of remaining in prisons for years to come – in a country that took away their freedom and human rights.
Despite ongoing international efforts to eliminate the practice of torture, it is not a question of whether torture still takes place, but rather where in the world it is still practised and how prevalent it is. Currently, more than 40 states across the globe have failed to ratify the UN Convention against Torture (UNCAT) and in many of these countries, human rights defenders are raising the alarm, alerting to the constant flow of cases involving torture and ill treatment.
If anything, the recent report on CIA’s use of torture shows that this crime is more prevalent than most of us probably thought. The US is a signatory to the Convention against Torture, yet its own intelligence agency relied on the practice of torture as an integral part of its interrogation technique.
If a country that has committed to respect the UN Convention still allows for the practice of torture, then what is the status in the 40 something countries that are still to adopt it?
We have looked at three of these countries. Despite facing very different problems, they all have one thing in common: none of them has managed to tackle the problem of torture.
As a country with a population of more than a billion, it is not hard to see what an overpowering task it is to eliminate torture. Set on making the country an industrial superpower and creating more jobs, overcoming the enormity of its human rights problems is not an immediate priority – economic reform is.
Nonetheless, it is very worrying that a large number of torture cases in India happen at the hand of the police, and often while the victim is in custody. From 2001 to 2010, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) recorded 14,231 deaths in police and judicial custody in India. The vast majority of these deaths can be ascribed to torture.
Only in recent weeks, newspapers have reported on the city of Chennai, where three police officers are currently being investigated for sexual torture of a 19-year old at the local police station. There is also the police commissioner in Delhi who has had to deny claims that the police has used torture to extract confessions. And in Calcutta, the West Bengal Government faces heat over alleged police torture of a woman.
According to various rights organisations, these stories are just the tip of the iceberg in a country that still has a long way to go despite its commitments to tackle the most prevalent human rights abuses. While the country has taken positive steps by strengthening laws protecting women and children, its reluctance to hold state officials to account for torture and other abuses continues to foster a culture of corruption and impunity.
To many, Fiji is the perfect holiday destination. With its white sandy beaches and exotic palm trees, this tropical archipelago in the South Pacific could easily be mistaken as paradise on earth. But even paradise has a dark side and in the case of Fiji this dark side involves a poor human rights record.
In recent years, there have been numerous allegations of the use of torture by state officials.
In March 2013, a video was posted on the internet showing two prisoners being badly beaten and humiliated by state security officials. Failure by the Fijian authorities to investigate the case has raised red flags about a culture of impunity for police and security forces.
Following last year’s elections, Fiji had its second review by the UN Human Rights Council which, among other things, urged the state to amend repressive decrees that put severe restrictions on freedom of expression, promote women’s rights and ratify the UNCAT.
Despite these recommendations and similar calls from various human rights organisations, the government is still to take action.
In the meantime, cases of police violence and torture involving state officials continue to emerge.
Central African Republic
For more than two years, a violent, sectarian civil war has left Central African Republic (CAR) paralysed, prompting rights organisations to warn of a human rights crisis spiralling out of control.
In January 2015, UN’s International Commission of Inquiry on the Central African Republic, reported that crimes against humanity have been widely committed by all parties to the ongoing conflict. The Commission strongly recommended that accountability mechanisms be put in place to tackle the ‘cycle of impunity’ in the CAR.
However, recognising that the CAR Government simply does not have the resources nor the political incentive to bring the perpetrators to justice, the Commission has urged the international community to step up and fund a tribunal to prosecute those who have committed crimes against humanity.
These recommendations illustrate how vital it is for CAR to ratify the UNCAT. Until this happens, violence and torture continue to be rampant in the war-torn country.
What difference can the UN Convention against Torture make?
In the first instance, the UNCAT is one of the most important international human rights
instruments in the work against torture which outlines the rights of an individual, outlaws torture, and promotes respect for the human rights of an individual.
When a UN member state has become a party to the Convention, the government of that
country is accountable under international law to take action to prevent torture and to support the victims when torture takes place.
According to the Association for the Prevention of Torture, “the Convention against Torture requires that all States, and each of us, remain vigilant to the risks of torture. This is what makes it so relevant in 2014, thirty years after its adoption.”
You can read more about the countries that have ratified the UNCAT by clicking on this link. For comprehensive profiles on each UN member state, the United Nations website provides a full country list.
“There was a call for help in a house which had been randomly shelled at Mujama’a St, East Gaza City. It was nearly 01:00 on the last day of Ramadan. The house was in complete chaos when the team arrived. There was dense smoke everywhere and a very bad smell, which hardly allowed them to breathe. I got the stretcher and the flashlight and entered the building, where I immediately saw a badly injured woman under the staircase. I took her to the ambulance and went back to the house. We managed to fit 3-6 people into the second ambulance….
“What shocked me most about this incident was that I forgot the flashlight in the house and my colleague asked me to go back and get it, since we would need it later for other evacuations. When I went back, I heard the feeble cry of a small baby, which I hadn’t noticed before. I looked around but couldn’t see anyone. Then I felt that the voice was coming from under a heap of rubble in flames. I searched in the rubble, though I felt my hands getting burnt, and finally I found a baby around one month old. I took her and ran back to the ambulance, but before I arrived she stopped breathing. I performed cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on her, and she came back to life.
“I was shocked by the incident, because she could have been one of my children, and I had almost left her behind in the fire to a certain death. I still thank God that I forgot the flashlight, so I was forced to go back to the house and could find her! I found a picture of her in the hospital on the internet, and I saved it, because it is a great encouragement for me. Now I want to look for her and see her grow, to tell her how proud I am that she is alive.”
The author of this story is Yousef Al Kahlout, a PRCS paramedic, who was part of the emergency response to Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip last summer.
Although accounts vary, most estimates put the number of residents of Gaza killed in the 50-day armed conflict at more than 2,000, of whom at least 70% were civilians. Additionally, more than 11,000 were wounded and over 100,000 made homeless because of the attacks.
The tale of Yousef and the baby he saved is one of hope. However, buried in the rubble in Gaza are many other stories of the short but devastating conflict.
Eight independent medical experts travelled to Gaza to uncover these stories. In a new fact-finding report, commissioned by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, they detail the types, causes and patterns of injuries based on interviews with victims.
The report, which is now available, provides a unique insight into the devastating impact war had on the civilians and communities in Palestine, and, at least partly, brings to light some of the stories the conflict nearly erased.
To read the full report, click here.
Guest blogger, Aisha Maniar of the London Guantánamo Campaign takes us through the longest-running criminal trial in modern Russian history and describes how the use of torture to extract confessions remains widespread.
More than 30 years since the UN Convention against Torture entered into force, torture remains a regular practice in many states, with impunity. A recently concluded trial in the Russian Federation shows how prevalent reliance on torture evidence remains in some regions.
On 13 October 2005, groups of armed men carried out attacks on public institutions in Nalchik, the capital city of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) in the volatile North Caucasus region of the Russian Federation. In the ensuing violence, which was quelled the following day, more than 150 people died, mainly attackers, and more than 100 were injured. Two militant groups claimed responsibility for the attacks.
It nonetheless took more than nine years to reach a verdict in what became the longest-running criminal trial in modern Russian history, with the largest number of defendants. On 23 December 2014, guilty verdicts were delivered against all 58 defendants in a trial tainted by torture evidence and efforts to obstruct the legal process, resulting in changes to the Russian criminal law; some commentators and human rights NGOs compared it to a show trial worthy of the Stalinist era.
In the days following the attacks, more than 2000 people were arrested; some were forced from their homes by armed police and others handed themselves in for questioning. By the end of the year, 59 remained in detention (one of the defendants died before the case went to trial).
In the week after their arrest, stories and images of their torture at the Nalchik pre-trial detention centre (SIZO) started to emerge. The images quickly circulated in the media causing an outrage which led to official admission that the suspects were tortured but the claims were never investigated. At least one of the defendants has a pending claim at the European Court of Human Rights for the torture he suffered.
The suspects were tortured into signing confessions that were self-incriminating and that incriminated others. In some cases, they did not know the persons they were incriminating. All charged with at least ten offences under the Russian Criminal Code, at trial, many withdrew their confessions, claiming they had been tortured into making them. Those who admitted involvement in the attacks did not plead guilty to all the charges against them. Indeed, many defendants had credible alibis and witnesses to prove it. One defendant was at university in another town at the time, which his teacher and classmates could vouch for; he was nonetheless given a 14-year sentence.
The torture and abuse did not end there; since 2005, and now pending appeal of their sentences, the defendants have been held at the Nalchik SIZO in cramped, unhygienic conditions which are inadequate for short-term pre-trial detention, let alone almost a decade. In addition, beatings by guards are not infrequent as well as prisoners being placed in solitary confinement as arbitrary punishment. On occasion, the defendants have gone on hunger strike in protest. Denied adequate medical attention, the past decade has taken its toll on the health of many defendants, who were healthy young men when they were jailed. Investigating these further claims of abuse has been hampered by the harassment of lawyers and restricted access to them.
Inside the courtroom, the trial was delayed when the defendants were denied a jury trial; instead, changes were made to the Russian Criminal Code retrospectively to restrict jury trials in such cases, thereby leaving the decision on the admissibility of torture evidence to a panel of three judges who passed the verdict. The dubious nature of the judgment is reflected in the fact that none of the four defendants caught with weapons in their possession were among the five given life sentences. More curiously, in a case hinging on the violent deaths of so many people, the murder charge was dropped against all the defendants, meaning that no one convicted in this case is responsible for the deaths. The implication of a former Guantánamo prisoner who lived just outside Nalchik in the attacks was used to justify the disproportionate response by the Russian authorities.
Amnesty International slammed the verdict as “a textbook case of criminal injustice, where the authorities manifestly refused to investigate allegations of torture, despite overwhelming evidence, and the defendants languished for nine years in pre-trial detention, all in violation of international law”. Human Rights Watch called on the authorities “to finally conduct effective and impartial investigations into the torture, hold those responsible to account, and immediately withdraw as evidence any coerced statements by the defendants.”
Lyudmila Alexeyeva from the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group visited some of the defendants at the SIZO and was told by them, “you would have confessed too, if you had been through what we have had to go through.”
For more information on the case in English: https://onesmallwindow.wordpress.com/2014/12/31/creating-a-state-of-mass-terror-in-the-north-caucasus/
Recently, the IRCT and two of its Danish member centres spoke with Copenhagen-based monthly newspaper The Murmur about their work with torture victims in Denmark.
Torture is something that most of us assume only affects those in developing nations, where civil wars still rage, governments are heavily corrupt and poverty plagues the masses. But while it is more prevalent in these nations, Amnesty International found evidence of torture in 79 countries, all of which had ratified the UN Convention Against Torture.
The IRCT is a leading organisation that helps rehabilitate these individuals, with 144 rehabilitation centres providing holistic treatment to torture victims in 76 countries.
Asylum seekers arriving in Denmark often bring with them scars from their encounters with torturers. In Copenhagen, the Oasis rehabilitation centre has just 15 staff members tending to approximately 130 victims, mostly hailing from Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and Somalia. Its sister organisation, Rehabiliteringscenter for Torturofre (RCT) in Jutland, treats many people from the Balkans, Chechnya, Syria, and the Post-Soviet Republics.
Both organisations treat the victims using a range of services and personnel, including social workers, psychologists, physical therapists and psychiatrists.
“We treat many civilians who have been victims of, or have witnessed organised violence against others, either during armed conflicts or under terror regimes, but we also treat perpetrators, as many from the Balkans were forced into military service against their will,” explains Mikkel Auning-Hansen, an RCT psychologist.
“Chechen refugees are damaged in many ways. Some were hunted, interrogated or tortured by paramilitary groups. Most of them have family members missing, hiding away from home or hunted for their political views. Some still feel that they are being hunted in Denmark.”
Ruth Lauge, the Director of Oasis, says soldiers are often the perpetrators. “We’ve treated a number of people who were kidnapped by the Taliban. For example, young children who were beaten and forced to put on suicide vests and being psychologically prepared to die, before they escaped,” she explains, adding that many victims have been living in Denmark for years, even decades, before they seek treatment.
“Many people come from being on the run and they just want a normal and safe life, with a home, family and work – just like anyone else,” Auning-Hansen says.
“Most cope for a limited time, but eventually, stress at work, problems in the family, loss of job or other unforeseen stresses tip the load and that’s when people reach out for help.”
Read the full article in the latest issue of The Murmur or click on this link.
Are you a human rights activist at heart whose New Year’s resolution is to voice your support for the movement, but never know when to do so? We have put together a list of significant human rights days worth adding to your 2015 calendar.
Throughout the year there are several days promoting human rights, many of which pay tribute to torture victims and those who have sacrificed their life fighting for justice. We have picked seven days that are all important milestones in the anti-torture movement.
24 March – International Day for the Right to the Truth concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims
In 2010 when the United Nations General Assembly chose 24 March as the day to honour the victims of gross and systematic human rights violations, the assembly had one particular person in mind. El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was assassinated on 24 March 1980 after speaking out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations and torture. Like so many others, he lost his life defending the principles of protecting lives, promoting human dignity and opposition to all forms of violence.
On this day, the world pays tribute to those who have devoted their lives to, and lost their lives in, the struggle to promote and protect human rights for all.
7 April – Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Rwanda Genocide
On numbers and timescale alone, the 1994 Rwandan genocide remains the largest of modern times. In 100 days, over 800,000 people were killed for being part of a different ethnic community. Hundreds of thousands civilians were also tortured and raped as the largest ethnic group, the Hutus repeatedly and mercilessly attacked the Tutsi population.
The mass killings began on 7 April, which is also the day that has been designated by the United Nations General Assembly as the Day of Remembrance of the many victims.
The aim with this day is to honour the many victims and to ensure that the world will never let history repeat itself.
4 June – International Day of Innocent Children Victims of Aggression
On 19 August 1982, at its emergency special session on the question of Palestine, the United Nations General Assembly, decided to commemorate 4 June of each year as the International Day of Innocent Children Victims of Aggression.
The purpose of 4 June is to acknowledge the pain suffered by children throughout the world who are the victims of physical, mental and emotional abuse.
20 June – World Refugee Day
For the first time since the Second World War, the global refugee figure has passed 50 million, the majority of whom live in developing countries.
Health professionals and researchers commonly estimate that between 4-35% of refugees worldwide have been subjected to torture.
For years, many countries and regions have been holding their own Refugee Days and even Weeks. One of the most widespread is Africa Refugee Day, which is celebrated on 20 June in several countries. In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly decided that this day would also be celebrated as World Refugee Day.
26 – June International Day in Support of Victims of Torture
Since the first 26 June celebrations in 1998, the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture has undoubtedly become the most significant day for the anti-torture movement.
Torture is a crime under international law, but despite freedom from it holding the status as one of the few universally recognised human rights, torture is still widely practised. The consequences reach far beyond immediate pain, destroying the lives of many victims and their families. Yet, too often, the perpetrators are not brought to justice, resulting in more pain and suffering for the victims.
26 June helps us remind the world and ourselves that torture is serious crime and a human rights violation which must be investigated, prosecuted and punished. Every year, the IRCT marks 26 June with a host of events, making it the world’s largest anti-torture campaign.
25 November – International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women
Women’s activists have marked 25 November as a day against violence since 1981. This date came from the brutal assassination in 1960 of the three Mirabal sisters, political activists in the Dominican Republic, on orders of Dominican ruler Rafael Trujillo (1930-1961).
Globally, violence against women remains rampant, with up to 35 per cent of women having experienced some form of violence.
Women are often more vulnerable to violence and discrimination than men and sexual abuse such as rape becomes a weapon of war in armed conflicts. 25 November not only commemorates the Mirabal sisters, but also serves as a reminder to all of us that it is time to end this global pandemic of violence against women.
10 December – Human Rights Day
Human Rights Day is celebrated by the international community every year on 10 December. It commemorates the day in 1948 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
10 December is a key day for organisations like the IRCT that use the day to cast a light on important human rights issues, including torture, through various events such high-level political conferences and cultural events and exhibitions.
Have any day to add to the list? Write us a comment.
For a full list of official UN days click on this link.