Treating refugees: How NGOs are supporting refugees in Serbia

Hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan have already passed through Serbia as they continue on their trek to EU countries such as Germany, Austria and Norway. Despite the fact that weather conditions are rapidly deteriorating, the numbers are not decreasing. We spoke to Bojana Trivuncic, a psychologist and project manager at the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims’ (IRCT) Serbian member centre International Aid Network (IAN), which has been providing medical first aid and psychosocial support to refugees through a Mobile Team Unit in parks and shelters in Belgrade and at the Croatian border.

“I have an image in my head of a 16-year-old Afghan boy, who is travelling alone. He was beaten by ISIS on the border of Iran and Pakistan. He has just 26 euro and a ruined pair of shoes. I keep thinking about that boy. How is he going to pass through two or three more countries without money?”

Bojana has many similar stories that have stayed with her. She has been working as a psychologist with IAN’s Mobile Team Unit, along with a medical doctor, nurse and field manager since July, dealing with some of the many refugees that pass through Serbia in less than 24 hours.

Refugees in Belgrade (Courtesy of International Aid Network)

Refugees in Principovac (Courtesy of International Aid Network)

As there are now just a small number of refugees in Belgrade, the Mobile Team Unit makes the four-hour round trip to the border each day.

“At the moment we are working with refugees at the Berkasovo-Babska border crossing. At the beginning we worked in a park in Belgrade, which was the biggest informal gathering place of refugees, and in Principovac, a refugee shelter near the Croatian border.”

While many organisations provide medical and legal aid to refugees, IAN is the only one providing psychological support. Bojana explains that the time the unit spends with each person depends on whether the border is open or not.

“If the border is open they are in the hurry to cross it. Refugees don’t have time to talk. But if they are waiting for the border to open or are settled in a shelter, the situation is completely different. They have a great need to share their story and are very thankful for understanding and sympathy.”

More than 218,000 migrants and refugees crossed the Mediterranean to Europe in October, according to the UNHCR. This almost equalled the number of crossings for all of 2014. Many of the refugees passing through Serbia have taken a boat from Turkey to Greece and travelled through Macedonia.

“They have to pay 1,200 euro per person to get on the boat. Very often the boats are overcrowded and sink, and sometimes they are in the sea for hours before they are rescued. Many smugglers throw their belongings in the sea, because the boat is too heavy. Some of them told me, ‘You look death in the eyes’, says Bojana.

The most common alternative path for refugees is through Bulgaria, especially for those fleeing Afghanistan. This has proven to be a dangerous route as many of the people Bojana has spoken to allege they have been put in prison for crossing the border illegally and the police have beaten them and stolen their money and phones. Unsurprisingly, many also allege they are victims of torture.

Refugees awaiting registration in Presevo, Serbia (Courtesy of Johannes Grunert used via Flickr creative commons license)

Refugees awaiting registration in Presevo, Serbia (Courtesy of Johannes Grunert used via Flickr creative commons license)

“Some of them were tortured in the country of origin and during their transit in Iran and Bulgaria. In Syria for example, many refugees were tortured in some kind of prison by members of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The methods are brutal. Many of them told me that they were tortured with electro shocks. In Afghanistan, many refugees were tortured by ISIS or the Taliban,” explains Bojana.

It is clear that these refugees need rehabilitation services, but for the time being their focus is on getting to safety and on starting a new life, particularly as winter starts to close in.
“They are helpless, looking for a better life, frightened that they are going to be returned (Afghans) or that Germany is going to close the border. They have only one wish, to continue with their journey and to reach an EU country,” says Bojana.

“When basic needs are not satisfied, like food, clothes and shelter, a person cannot deal with emotions or trauma. For me it is ok to be there for them, to help them with their basic needs, and of course to be there for them if they want to talk, to share their problems and traumatic experiences, and to calm them if they are fearful.”

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Treating refugees: How NGOs are supporting refugees in Hungary

The use of riot police, the construction of a 175 km razor-wire fence and threats of deportation. These are just some of the harsh measures taken by the Hungarian government to curb the influx of refugees entering the country. Meanwhile, Hungarian NGOs are providing much needed support and relief to the refugees who have made it to the country. One of these NGOs is IRCT member centre the Cordelia Foundation, which is based in Budapest. The centre offers psychiatric and psychosocial care to torture survivors. We spoke with the centre’s Medical Director Lilla Hardi about travelling to the Hungarian border to help out at the front line.

“We have seen a huge number of refugees at the railway stations in Budapest and have heard that the situation at the border is really catastrophic and chaotic.”

In an email, Dr. Lilla Hardi explains why she and 11 colleagues from the Cordelia Foundation rehabilitation centre decided to travel to the border between Hungary and Serbia last month. They made two trips to assess the refugee situation and to offer their support to those in need of rehabilitation services.

On their first trip they were denied access to the refugees. However, on their second trip they managed to treat a number of people each day.

Refugees in Hungary (Courtesy of International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies used via Flickr creative commons license)

Refugees in Hungary (Courtesy of International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies used via Flickr creative commons license)

According to Dr. Hardi, most of the refugees she saw seemed to be doing relatively well physically, but suffered from serious mental health problems as a direct result of the traumatising events they had experienced.

“Many of the newly arrived refugees were in a very bad state mentally. They were very exhausted and desperate,” she writes. “I think aggressive manifestations in their behaviour might happen due to their traumatised and desperate state. This situation is another trauma contributing to their already unbalanced mental state and earlier traumatisation.”

Empirical studies by the Chamber of Psychotherapists in Germany echo this assessment, suggesting that at least half of the refugees coming to the country have mental health problems because of the trauma suffered in war or during their dangerous escapes. An even bigger number of these refugees have been subjected to human rights violations, including torture, says the Chamber.

In the ongoing political debate, there seems to be hardly any focus on early identification of torture victims among newly arrived refugees and no coordinated response schemes are available. Currently, the work carried out by the Cordelia Foundation and other organisations in support of traumatised refugees is largely done on a voluntary basis. This shows how urgent the need is for States to acknowledge their obligation and provide the resources and mechanisms to support and protect victims of torture.

However, in Hungary, the government’s response to the crisis so far has been to close off a railway track used by tens of thousands of refugees to enter the European Union on foot. This is all part of its crackdown on refugees coming from Serbia.

Refugees in Hungary (Courtesy of Peter Tkac used via Flickr creative commons license)

Refugees in Hungary (Courtesy of Peter Tkac used via Flickr creative commons license)

Personally, Dr. Hardi did not experience any hostility from Hungarian police, but she notes how strange it is to see police officers wearing masks and gloves. “They wear them in the belief that it prevents them from getting ‘contaminated’,” she explains.

The fact that Hungarian police officers find it necessary to wear masks and gloves to protect themselves from disease and contamination illustrates the general lack of compassion for the refugees coming to Europe and the lack of understanding there is for what many of them have been through.

“In one of the detention centres we met a Syrian family of 12 who had been transferred from the border that very day. The head of the family used to be a high-rank public service person in his country. They had witnessed the beheading of about 500 persons in their city,” writes Dr. Hardi.

“All of the family members were seriously traumatised and showed serious symptoms of PTSD. One of them had lost a lower limb and had a temporary prosthesis; another suffered from diabetes and needed insulin urgently. We asked one of the nurses to monitor him and to give him the insulin that he had brought himself.

The team from the Cordelia Foundation also alerted the local authorities to the fact that the family needed help.

“We introduced them to our local therapist and our psychiatrist who is in charge of our clients on a weekly basis. She has been taking care of the family since then. We immediately wrote a short medical report on their state ordering them to be released as they belong to the vulnerable group. However, the authorities did not release them. Instead they extended their stay in detention by another 30 days.”

With the situation in Syria unchanged and other armed conflicts continuing to disrupt the Middle Eastern and Sub-Saharan region, hundreds of thousands are left with no other choice than to flee war, violence and human rights abuses, torture being one of them.

When asked what she thinks will happen, Dr. Hardi replies:

“Nobody knows. The situation is permanently changing.”

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Putting the spotlight on torture: 12 years since the IRCT won the Hilton Humanitarian prize

This month, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) will be in New York to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize. The IRCT belongs to an exclusive group of non-profit organisations that have received the prestigious Prize and grant. As the group welcomes its 20th member, we look back to 2003, when the IRCT became only the eighth organisation to win the Prize.

For the Copenhagen-based umbrella organisation, the award could not have come at a better time. 2003 had been a very challenging year financially – not only for the IRCT, but for the whole torture rehabilitation sector. A time that mirrors the current situation unfolding across the globe.

Some of the IRCT’s member centres were struggling to keep afloat and programmes were in risk of closing because of lack of funding. In Europe, a change in EU policy had led to an increased focus on the prevention of torture, while support and funding to the rehabilitation of torture victims had been decreasing.


The Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian grant enabled the IRCT to assist some of the rehabilitation centres in need, through the allocation of direct grants to rehabilitation centres and programmes in financial difficulties. In some cases, this was the difference between centres surviving or not.

Acknowledging the work of torture rehabilitation centres

The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation is named after its founder, the late hotel entrepreneur who left the bulk of his fortune to the Foundation with instructions to use the funds to help the most disadvantaged and vulnerable throughout the world. Recipients of the Prize include SOS-Kinderdorf International, Médecins Sans Frontières, Heifer International and Operation Smile.

When the Foundation chose IRCT as the 2003 laureate, it put the spotlight on the widespread use of torture by governments, and recognised the extraordinary work performed every day by staff in rehabilitation centres and programmes for torture victims worldwide. Just as importantly, the Prize was a tribute to torture survivors and their families, and to the strength of human spirit they display in their determination to overcome the horror of torture to live in dignity.

At the time Mr Steven M. Hilton, President of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, said, “By addressing the unimaginable suffering of men, women and even children who have endured torture, IRCT personifies the purpose of the Hilton Humanitarian Prize, which is to recognise and support the work of organisations alleviating human suffering throughout the world.”

The IRCT won the 2003 Hilton Humanitarian Prize. (Courtesy of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation)

When asked about the impact of the award, then IRCT Secretary-General Dr. Jens Modvig explained that torture is not an easy subject to put before the public, but the Hilton award helped break this silence and remind us that we all have a responsibility to see that torture is eradicated and to help survivors of torture rebuild their lives.

Twelve years on, the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize continues to have a positive impact on the torture rehabilitation movement. Winning the award sent a clear signal to potential donors and foundations that the IRCT and its member organisations are worth supporting.

With this in mind, the IRCT is excited to attend this year’s prize ceremony and to welcome the 20th recipient into the prestigious list of winners. Given today’s global challenges facing many organisations in the humanitarian sector, the need for foundations like the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation is greater than ever. Hopefully, the prize will once again raise awareness about the global need for humanitarian aid and the power of philanthropy, encouraging others to expand their support.


This year’s winner of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize will be announced at a prize ceremony in New York on 14 October.

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Restoring broken communities in the Great Lakes Region

The Genocide in Rwanda, civil war in Burundi and a series of brutal and protracted wars in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have scarred Africa’s Great Lakes Region and its people. Millions have been killed, subjected to human rights violations and displaced because of these events. However, over the last four years six rehabilitation centres across the three countries worked together to empower victims of torture to overcome the trauma of their past and become actively involved in their communities once more.

Rehabilitating victims of torture so they can rebuild their lives and their sense of community is not an easy task. Yet six centres in the Great Lakes Region have empowered thousands of torture victims by taking a holistic and community-based rehabilitation approach.

The centres were all part of a four-year project funded by the EU aiming to empower victims of torture through different rehabilitation approaches. Reigniting a sense of community was at the core of all of the centres’ activities, with a special focus on reaching out to rural areas and to the secondary victims of torture who are often forgotten – husbands, wives, children, friends and neighbours.

An important aspect of the project was social counselling. The six centres helped set up more than 100 community-based social counselling groups, which enabled up to 15 members to meet once a week and share their experiences with their friends and neighbours.

Social counselling groups facilitated the discussion of issues old and new within communities across the region (Photo IRCT).

Social counselling groups facilitated the discussion of issues old and new within communities across the region (Photo IRCT).

For one torture victim in the DRC, the counselling groups were a life changing experience. “My life has become normal again, little by little, as the social counselling sessions advanced. My mental problems which disturbed me so much have become fewer and fewer. With the social counselling group, I started to win my life back. I started to earn a little bit of money and can provide for my family again. I am again invited to community meetings and when I make suggestions they are considered.”

As well as improving the physical and mental health of participants, social counselling groups can also empower victims of torture financially. financial benefits. Of the 100 groups set up by the six centres, some of them had a specific focus onincome generating activity groups (IGAs).

Over 2,982 people participated or continue to participate in income generating activity groups; rearing goats, growing vegetables, manufacturing soap and much more. They can now provide for their families and escape the cycle of poverty and social exclusion which once defined them.

Many of the groups have also gone on to become co-operatives where the entire community gets involved. Some have taken up watermelon farming, which is an ideal cash crop for the region. Taking just three months to harvest, one watermelon has the same value as 3kg of maize and can be exported around the world.

The main working areas chosen by the participants were agriculture and animal husbandry, as many live in rural areas and wanted to improve their skills.

The main working areas chosen by the IGA groups were agriculture and animal husbandry (Photo: IRCT).

One victim in particular who started growing watermelon in 2014, harvested two million Rwandan Francs worth in his second season. He is now working full time, has bought his own motor cycle and his business continues to grow.

J.I. from Rwanda is part of one of the IGAs. “In my village there were 15 families like mine, where children were the head of household. We got together and started a bee-keeping project.

“With our profits, we bought a piece of land with trees. My brothers and sisters could all go to school and we had enough food every day.”

To read more about the activities undertaken in the region, download the Great Lakes Project Report here.

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No money for support to the most vulnerable: Europe’s funding crisis for rehabilitation of torture victims

As Europe is facing a historically high influx of refugees – many of whom are survivors of torture – the need for proper care and rehabilitation of torture victims is greater than ever. Yet, there is a serious funding shortage across the continent, which has left a growing number of torture rehabilitation centres in dire financial straits. According to the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), if states do not reverse this trend, we will see an acute loss of support services to those vulnerable and most in need.

“The cut in funding over the past five years has affected our work drastically and we have had to reduce the number of staff as well as patients. But now, it affects our actual existence. The facts are very simple: today, we have enough money in the bank to continue our work throughout September, but not in October.”

This is how the Director for Programs at French rehabilitation centre and IRCT member Parcours d’exil, Jérôme Boillat describes the centre’s current funding situation. A situation that could very well lead to its closure and leave hundreds of traumatised torture victims untreated.

Across the English Channel, London based Refugee Therapy Centre has also fallen victim to the funding crisis. After more than 15 years of providing psychological therapy and associated treatments to thousands of refugees and asylum seekers, the centre is now forced to downscale its work to three days a week. Going from operating five days a week to only three days inevitably means leaving behind torture victims in desperate need of help.

“The success of our work can be measured by the smiles made possible after interventions to heal the psychological and emotional wounds of those whose basic human rights were violated by torture and persecution. To continue with essential humanitarian work, our centre desperately needs financial support,” says Refugee Therapy Centre’s Clinical Director and CEO Dr Aida Alayarian.

The two situations in France and the UK are far from the only examples of torture rehabilitation centres scrambling for funding. At least 11 IRCT member centres and numerous programs that have helped thousands of torture victims across Europe have either lost funding or are predicting major cuts that will inevitably affect torture victims.

Syrian refugees. (Courtesy of Freedom House used via Flickr creative commons license)

Syrian refugees. (Courtesy of Freedom House used via Flickr creative commons license)

In Austria, upon learning that it may lose vital funding from the EU, an IRCT member is sharing its grim forecast: “If this funding were to be cut or stopped, we would have to reduce our support to survivors of torture drastically. As it is, there is hardly any funding for this target group on a local or national level. The only funding sources are international bodies and even their funding is being cut,” the centre explains and continues:

“Much of our work is in refugee shelters and no other Austrian organisation does the exact same kind of work. Referrals cannot be made because the only other organisation in our country working in this field has also very limited resources and they have their own clients. There are hardly any doctors or social services which have intercultural competencies.”

Europe is currently experiencing a massive increase in numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, driven by conflict, humanitarian crises and human rights violations, particularly in the Middle East and Africa. While Eurostat figures found that around 945.000 of asylum seekers entering the EU between 2002 and 2012 were victims of torture, there is no longer any doubt that this number will be much higher in 2015.

However, the urgent treatment and rehabilitation of torture victims is not adequately covered by EU member states, despite their obligations under international human rights and EU law.

The responsibility to provide rehabilitation to torture victims lies with the state. Yet in almost all EU countries, insufficient resources are being earmarked to provide specialised health services to vulnerable groups, including torture victims. This leaves rehabilitation centres to fill the gap.

“We know that a significant percentage of asylum seekers and refugees in the EU are torture victims and require access to rehabilitation services as early as possible. Our European member centres are doing their best to help as many people as possible, but sadly, many of these centres have had to cut their support services to torture victims due to a lack of funding,” says Miriam Reventlow, Advocacy Director at the IRCT.

The funding shortage affects traumatised refugees and asylum seekers at various stages. In Germany for example, newly arrived refugees and asylum seekers are among the groups that will be hit hard by a reduction in funding.

“The German state still has no early identification system for vulnerable groups, especially not for torture survivors. When it comes to rehabilitation of torture survivors, the competences and capacities of the regular healthcare system are still far behind the actual need. Moreover, there exists no funding for this type of work by the German government. By law, refugees have limited access to the regular health care system until the moment they are granted a residence permit. Psychosocial therapy centres try to cover this gap, while at the same time navigating through political changes,” explains Christian Cleusters from German rehabilitation centre Medical Care Service for Refugees Bochum.

So what can be done to ensure that as many torture victims as possible receive the treatment they need?

According to the IRCT, the answer is simple: every country in the EU will have to recognise their obligations under international human rights law and EU law and designate adequate resources within their healthcare budgets. But also, the EU institutions play a key role in providing sufficient funding and need to uphold their support to this important field of work.

“If we don’t generate more support, thousands of torture victims risk having current treatment programmes interrupted or will be unable to access rehabilitation services in the first place. European countries all have a responsibility to ensure that there is enough funding to provide rehabilitation to victims of torture, and we need them to take this responsibility seriously,” says Miriam Reventlow.

In the UK, when asked how the Refugee Therapy Centre has helped them overcome their trauma, one torture survivor explains: “The group has helped me confront my problems and let go of the past. Now I can think of the future.”

For another survivor, the treatment has simply improved his quality of life: “I do not feel ashamed of being myself anymore and I can sleep a little better now.”

With less funding and no action from European leaders, the question is how many torture victims will be prevented from receiving the treatment they need to fully recover from their past trauma and be able to find a new path of life in their host country.

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Torture at the hands of the state: What happened to Yecenia?

Eight months ago, the future was finally starting to look bright for Yecenia Armenta Graciano. After spending more than two years in prison in the state of Sinaloa, having been accused of ordering her husband’s murder, a judge had ruled that Yecenia’s confession had been obtained through torture and therefore could not be used as evidence in the case. Her supporters saw the ruling as a victory for justice and hoped it would lead to her release. Yet Yecenia remains in prison today.

The picture Yecenia paints of her experience in July 2012 is one of torture, rape and threats. She alleges that plainclothes police officers arrested her not long after the murder of her husband, and tortured her for 15 hours.

During that time she says she was raped, tortured and threatened before she confessed to ordering her husband’s murder. Blindfolded, she signed the confession form. No one questioned or checked her injuries and marks of torture and she was imprisoned. As time went on, her visible injuries faded and eventually disappeared.

Various human rights groups have criticised the local authorities for dismissing Yecenia’s allegations and for protecting the perpetrators.

The criticism only grew louder when the Office of the Mexican Attorney-General conducted a medical and psychological examination of Yecenia concluding that there was no evidence of physical torture or mistreatment related to her allegations, and her psychological symptoms were not related to the allegations.

Then in early 2015, after carrying out examinations in accordance with the international standards set out in the Istanbul Protocol, two experts from the Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG) supported Yecenia’s claim that she had been tortured.

Based on these findings, the court ordered the State Attorney to further investigate the case and punish the perpetrators. To many, this was a sign that Yecenia would soon be free, but she is still behind bars, having spent more than three years away from her children.

Yecenia Armenta Graciano (Photo: Amnesty International).

Yecenia Armenta Graciano (Photo: Amnesty International).

In an Amnesty International Campaign demanding her immediate release, she wrote: “I’ve seen summers come and fade, people arrive at and then leave this place, and all the time my children are growing up, outside these walls. Three years of change and movement: but still I remain here. At times I must admit I’ve felt very tired, and defeated”.

Sadly, Yecenia’s story is not an isolated case. In May 2014, 11 female survivors of sexual torture launched the campaign “Breaking the Silence: together against sexual torture”, aiming to raise awareness of other cases of sexually tortured women. The women had been sexually tortured by a number of state forces, including the armed forces, the navy and the police, with many of them tortured into making false confessions for various crimes.

Human rights groups say that torture is rife in Mexico and is routinely used by the security forces to extract confessions or information. According to the “Breaking the Silence: together against sexual torture” campaign, Mexican women in particular are faced with a systematic pattern of sexual torture by state institutions that fail to provide the protection society expects of them.

Recently there have been some signs of action by the Mexican authorities to eradicate torture and combat impunity, but the number of convictions in cases of torture is low.

In the meantime, Yecenia is sitting in a prison cell in Northern Mexico, hoping that she will soon be reunited with her children. Her case is no longer with the State court of Sinaloa, but has been moved to the Supreme Court of Justice, where it is pending hearing.

After everything she has been through, human rights defenders remain hopeful that Mexico’s highest court will finally grant Yecenia her freedom.

In Yecenia’s own words: “Freedom is vital for any human being. Freedom helps us breathe, it helps us live fully. I also want to be free, free to be myself, just the way I am.”

To find out more or to sign Amnesty International’s petition to free Yecenia Armenta Graciano click here.

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Europe’s Narrow Lead on Prosecuting CIA Torture

In her latest blog, guest blogger Aisha Maniar of the London Guantánamo Campaign writes about the few, but encouraging efforts in Europe to prosecute those believed to have been complicit in the notorious CIA rendition programme.

The December 2014 publication of the redacted findings and conclusions of the US Senate Select Committee investigation into the CIA’s use of torture shed further light on and confirmed some of the worst practices of the extraordinary rendition programme, leading to calls for prosecution of those involved.

Eight months on, little has changed. On 24 June, a coalition of over 100 groups worldwide sent a letter to the UN Human Rights Council calling for accountability, prosecution and reparations for CIA torture.

Throughout the CIA’s long history of ‘coercive forms of interrogation’, prosecutions have been few. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, however, there have been some encouraging moves against those believed to have been involved in the rendition programme.

On 23 June, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) heard a case brought against Italy by an Egyptian national for its collusion in his abduction and ‘rendition’ to Egypt in 2003 where he was detained illegally and tortured for several months. Italy denies the claims and the judgment is pending, but it is a unique case as in 2012, in domestic proceedings, the Italian Supreme Court’s final judgment in the related criminal case saw 23 US citizens convicted in absentia for his kidnapping; prison sentences and fines were imposed.

This is the first and only successful prosecution against the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme anywhere. The ramifications of this hit home a year later, in 2013, when convicted former CIA operative Robert Seldon Lady was arrested, as he transited through Panama, pending extradition to Italy to serve his eight-year sentence, although he was released the next day. He has admitted his role in the operation and that it was illegal.

This is the third such case to be heard before the ECtHR; previous cases heard against Macedonia and Poland have found both states guilty of breaches of the absolute prohibition on torture under the European Convention on Human Rights, with both ordered to pay compensation. Further cases are pending against Romania and Lithuania.


Aside from one other case recently reopened before the African Commission for Human and People’s Rights, following new revelations against Djibouti, this is as far as international legal efforts to prosecute extraordinary rendition have gotten. Although neither court has jurisdiction over the US, these cases reveal the global extent of the extraordinary rendition programme, which would have been impossible without the collusion of so many states.

The Torture Report findings have also led the European Parliament to announce the reopening of its investigation into member state complicity in rendition in February 2015 and urging states to investigate and prosecute allegations.

Domestic efforts are still underway in some parts of Europe. As part of an ongoing criminal investigation into at least six alleged torture flights through Scottish airspace, police in Scotland are seeking access to a full non-redacted copy of the Torture Report.

In Spain, an ongoing criminal investigation brought by a number of former Guantánamo prisoners under universal jurisdiction laws was recently closed following restrictive changes to the law, but a number of NGOs have appealed this decision.

There is still much work to be done. Elsewhere, political pressure and state secrecy have seen prosecutions end prematurely or shut down. Denial remains a popular option and impunity reigns.

While the focus is on the US, the involvement of its allies must not be ignored. Investigation, prosecution and accountability matter, not just to draw a line under the crimes of the past, but to ensure they are not still occurring or will again in future.

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Three months on: Torture rehabilitation centres helping earthquake victims in Nepal

Three months after a series of devastating earthquakes shook Nepal to its core, the country is still scrambling to rebuild. According to Red Cross, one in four Nepalese have been affected, many of whom are suffering from the trauma that arises from experiencing a natural disaster this size. Along with other organisations, two IRCT members are on the ground, working tirelessly to support victims of the earthquake with psychological first aid.

April’s earthquakes took the lives of more than 8,000 Nepalese and left hundreds of thousands injured and homeless.

“Many people lost their life when their houses collapsed,” Jamuna Poudyal from Kathmandu based organisation Centre for Victims of Torture (CVICT) told us back in April, trying to comprehend the sheer scale of the disaster.

“People in the Kathmandu Valley still feel that their life is in danger because of the many aftershocks,” she explained.

Three months on and people are still suffering from psychological problems, while trying to rebuild their lives.

Responding to the need for Psychological First Aid (PFA), CVICT and another local torture rehabilitation centre Transcultural Psychosocial Organization Nepal (TPO Nepal) are on the ground, supporting thousands of earthquake victims.

With staff working across the major affected districts, the two centres have helped thousands of victims, by offering various services such as PFA, clinical support and psychosocial counselling.

TPO Nepal Training of Trainers and Supervisors in Kathmandu. Courtesy of TPO Nepal

TPO Nepal Training of Trainers and Supervisors in Kathmandu. Courtesy of TPO Nepal

“We train mental health and psychosocial support frontline workers in Psychological First Aid that includes basic psychosocial support, listening skills and referrals,” explains TPO Nepal’s Executive Manager Suraj Koirala, “they then train non-mental health experts, such as volunteers, NGO staff, teachers, health workers and social workers in psychological first aid and other mental health and psychosocial care.”

By including training in its earthquake response, TPO Nepal is able to address the urgent and short-term psychological needs of those affected. At this point, the centre has already reached out to more than 10,000 people.

TPO Nepal is also operating a toll free helpline for victims of the earthquake. Managed by psychosocial counsellors, the helpline offers support to people in need.

“We encourage people to call the number if they experience emotional distress or grief; feel weak or have a lot of body pains; or if they are struggling with thoughts about hurting themselves; or if there are psychosocial problems in the family,” explains Suraj.

While the world’s attention is no longer on Nepal, organisations like CVICT and TPO Nepal continue to help people whose lives were shattered by the earthquakes.

“The demand for mental health and psychosocial services continues to be high. These people have experienced death and destruction and now they are trying to rebuild their lives. But without mental health and psychosocial support they may not overcome their trauma,” notes Suraj.

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Africa: Will torture survivors see justice after 25 years?

In Senegal, a truly historic trial is unfolding as Chad’s former dictator Hissene Habré stands accused of crimes against humanity and torture, 25 years after his eight-year brutal rule ended. The trial that is highly anticipated by Habré’s victims, their families and human rights organisations, is the first of an African leader on the African continent for human rights violations.

25 years is a long time to wait, especially when you are seeking justice for human rights violations committed against you. Nonetheless, this is how long former Chad dictator Hissene Habré’s alleged victims and their families have had to wait before they could see him brought to trial for crimes against humanity and torture.

Many victims have been calling for it since his overthrow and exile in Senegal in 1990. A Chadian Truth Commission accused Habré’s government of 40,000 political murders and systematic torture. According to the commission, most abuses were carried out by his political police, the Documentation and Security Directorate, whose directors reported directly to the dictator.

Yet, despite being accused of thousands of political murders and systematic torture during his eight-year rule, Habré managed to live in Senegal for 22 years without being arrested.

It was not until August 2012, that Senegal and the African Union (AU) signed an agreement to establish the Extraordinary African Chambers, a special court in the Senegalese justice system, for Habré’s trial, putting an end to more than decade of legal wrangling over his prosecution.

The agreement followed a landmark ruling by the International Court of Justice a month earlier, ordering Senegal to bring Habré to justice “without further delay” either by prosecuting him domestically or extraditing him for trial.” Habré was finally arrested in July 2013.

(Courtesy of Human Rights for All FIDH Worlwide Human Rights Movement used via Flickr creative commons license)

(Courtesy of Human Rights for All FIDH Worlwide Human Rights Movement used via Flickr creative commons license)

The start of the trial against Habré on 20 July 2015 is in itself a victory for the victims, who filed the charges against Habré initially in 2000 and relentlessly fought throughout the years for their right to justice. They never stopped raising their case with politicians, the public and the media to ensure that their voices were being heard and that efforts for investigation and prosecution did not cease.

The court’s procedures allow victims to directly engage as civil parties in the trial, and over 4000 have registered to do so. In the event that Habré will be found guilty of the allegations of crimes against humanity and torture, the court can also order that reparations are paid into a victims’ fund, which will benefit all victims who have from suffered Habre’s actions.

According to The Independent, around 100 witnesses are already in Senegal’s capital Dakar, waiting to give evidence to the hearings, which are likely to last three months. The newspaper also reported that many campaigners were in court, holding signs calling for justice for the victims.

In her opening statement to the court, Jacqueline Moudeina, the leading victims’ representative, said that the trial “is in the name of humanity, a humanity which Hissene Habre never allowed his victims“.

We are still to see if the trial will lead to justice for the victims, but the fact that there is even a trial is a great milestone in African justice.

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Around the world: 26 June in pictures

Nearly three weeks since the 26 June campaign swept the world, we continue to receive photos from the big day. As always, various torture rehabilitation centres across the globe came out in force to celebrate and honour victims and survivors of torture, and their photos offer a unique insight into some of the many activities and events that took place.


Under the theme ‘Right to Rehabilitation’ the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims’ member Albanian Rehabilitation Centre for Trauma and Torture dedicated a special exhibition to the sufferings of victims of the communist regime. The exhibition included photographs, names and faces of people who were initially persecuted for political reasons and then imprisoned and executed without trial.

Courtesy of Albanian Rehabilitation Centre for Trauma and Torture

Courtesy of Albanian Rehabilitation Centre for Trauma and Torture


At the University of South Australia, nearly 300 people attended an event co-organised by the university and local rehabilitation centre Survivors of Torture and Trauma Assistance and Rehabilitation Service (STTARS). Regional Representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Thomas Albrecht delivered the keynote speech, discussing the global challenge of refugee protection, with specific focus on providing sustained support to survivors of violence and torture.


Courtesy of Survivors of Torture and Trauma Assistance and Rehabilitation Service


IRCT member The Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture hosted 26 June events that saw around 140 participants, including survivors, experts and community members come together to discuss and learn about the consequences of traumatic experiences as well as the successes and challenges associated with helping torture survivors overcome their past. The day included a photo exhibition, a set of discussions, and theatrical and musical performances.

Courtesy of the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture

Courtesy of the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture


IRCT member in Russia, The Committee Against Torture organised a series of peaceful organisations in Nizhny Novgorod, Orenburg and Yoshkar-Ola dedicated to 26 June – complete with red balloons. In Moscow a similar event was organised together with Amnesty International.

Courtesy of the Committee Against Torture.

Courtesy of the Committee Against Torture.

 Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, HRO Kandy held a poster exhibition themed “Justice & Dignity for all” in the days leading up to 26 June. The exhibition, which attracted more than 3,500 visitors in the course of two days, depicted the rights of individuals through posters drawn by school children. The message that HRO Kandy wanted to share with the visitors was: “Say No to Torture”.

Courtesy of HRO Kandy

Courtesy of HRO Kandy


We encourage you to share your photos and stories with us either as a comment here or on our World Without Torture Facebook page.

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