Guest blogger Aisha Maniar of the London Guantánamo Campaign writes about a controversial counter-terrorism bill in India that, if passed, could increase the risk of torture and other ill-treatment of prisoners.
On 31 March, the government of the state of Gujarat, in Western India, passed a controversial counter-terrorism bill for the fourth time in 12 years.
First passed in 2003 under the auspices of the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, when he was Chief Minister of the state, the Gujarat government now hopes that Modi’s current status will help the bill acquire the presidential assent required for it to become law – something that has been denied three times already.
One of the most controversial provisions of this latest amendment of the bill, now called the Gujarat Control of Terrorism and Organised Crime Bill (previously, only organised crime was mentioned in the title), is clause 16, which would allow confessions made to a police officer at or above the rank of superintendent admissible evidence in court.
Clause 16 does not contain any safeguards against fears that it may be used to obtain confessions coerced through torture or other inhumane treatment. The last time the bill was approved and sent for presidential assent in 2009, the president’s office asked for this clause to be removed.
According to Amnesty International India, the lack of adequate safeguards in clause 16 “will almost certainly increase the risk of torture and other ill-treatment of detainees.”
In addition to clause 16, the Gujarat bill includes a very broad definition of torture and affords immunity against prosecution of police or government officials acting in “good faith”. It is modelled on a similar law from the neighbouring state of Maharashtra on organised crime, which contains the same provision. However, this bill differs in its widening of the scope to include counter-terrorism, harking back to controversial old counter-terrorism laws. According to journalist Manoj Mitta, this clause “threatens to serve as a legal cover for torture”.
India is still to ratify the UN Convention against Torture (CAT) and the use of torture in Indian prisons is rife, particularly where prisoners are accused of or convicted of terrorism-related offences. A 2011 Human Rights Watch report on the treatment of terrorism suspects in India states that “much of the worst abuse” was committed by the Gujarat police. In the first decade of this century, more than 100 people died in custody in Gujarat, usually as a result of torture.
Just weeks after the Gujarat government passed the bill in mid-April, the Gujarat police sought to prevent the release of a book detailing the torture suffered by a man who had been arrested under the earlier repealed counter-terrorism law. Tortured into confessing, along with five others, the man was convicted and sentenced to death in 2006; he was acquitted of all charges in 2014 by the Indian Supreme Court and released from prison after 11 years.
An Amnesty International survey from 2014 found that 74% of respondents in India – the highest rate along with China – believe “torture can sometimes be justiﬁed to gain information that may protect the public.” Both widespread and widely accepted in India, such a law would only further sanction its use and could lead to an increase of the practice. Amnesty International India has called for similar existing laws in other states to be repealed immediately.
Speaking of the Gujarat bill, Shemeer Babu, Programmes Director at Amnesty International India, said, “Instead of weakening criminal procedure safeguards, authorities should be giving state police the training, resources and autonomy they need to prevent and solve crimes.”
And besides prevention, the government should do more to treat those who have fallen victims to torture in the country, which has one of the highest incidences of torture in the world. Torture is a complex problem that requires comprehensive solutions.
On 23 April, the state governor of Gujarat sent the bill to the Indian President Pranab Mukherjee for his assent. The opposition party in the state has said it will ask the President not to approve it. A decision is likely in May.
Throughout the years, we have been moved by some powerful anti-torture campaigns seeking to highlight the horrors of torture and its devastating impact on the victims and their families. With less than two months to 26 June, which is also the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, we are in campaign mode and saw it fit to share some of the most effective campaigns from the anti-torture movement.
As some of the campaigns on our list show, powerful can also be controversial.
Sounds from torture – Amnesty International Portugal
First up is this campaign from Amnesty International Portugal. As the name suggests, the campaign from last year was built around sounds of torture. At the center of the campaign is a drum set made up of objects used in torture methods. Created by artists and musicians, the drum set was on display around the country, creating awareness about different torture methods and amplifying the pain sounds to make everyone listen.
For those interested, you can still test each instrument on the campaign website – just prepare yourselves for some terrifying sounds.
Visit the campaign here.
“Torture a man and he’ll say anything” – Amnesty International Belgium
This satirical campaign, also from 2014, was controversial for various reasons. The use of brutal imagery of famous people quickly got the internet talking, but the campaign suffered a blow when it was revealed that Amnesty used images of its subjects without permission.
Controversial or not, the campaign certainly had the shock factor that many other campaigns can only dream of. One of the images showed a beaten up Iggy Pop together with the quote “Justin Bieber is the future of Rock and Roll”, and followed by: “Torture a man and he’ll say anything. Torture is not just inhumane, it’s ineffective. Stop it”. The message and image are very powerful together and address a sad reality – that most people believe torture works.
“Torturer Wanted” – Freedom from Torture
In 2012, Freedom from Torture, an IRCT member in the UK, placed a series of mock advertisements in The Guardian and the Independent. The aim was to create awareness and get people to think about torture in a different way – an objective that seemed to work.
Right in the middle, between the usual job suspects, job seekers could read the ad for a “Torturer”, which offered an annual salary of between £16,000 and £21,000.
The ad then read: “The government of a Middle Eastern state is recruiting a senior torturer to work in a well-equipped prison. Our ideal candidate would be prepared to inflict extreme pain and suffering. Familiarity with dental and medical equipment and knowledge of human anatomy is required…” (to read the full ad, click here).
The reality portrayed by the campaign was a surprise to the general public. The reality is, torture – and torturers – exist and is a common practice around the world. Lack of awareness about it impedes the work done by torture rehabilitation organisations like Freedom from Torture. The campaign received plenty of attention and support from the media, other NGOs and on social media.
“Fighting Impunity” – International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT)
Unlike some of the other campaigns on this list, last year’s “Fighting Impunity” campaign by the IRCT used more traditional tactics to raise awareness about torture and impunity.
Culminating on 26 June, which is the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the campaign sought to mobilise IRCT members and other torture rehabilitation organisations around the world, and engage with the general public on social media.
The campaign depicted four archetypical torturers making the “shhh” finger gesture for quiet. The images were accompanied by the message: “Those who tortured you to speak now want you silent”.
110 organisations all over the world joined the campaign to call for the end to impunity, organising their own events, and thousands of people and NGOs showed their support on social media.
You can read more about the campaign here.
Getting Away With Torture – Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has for many years been a strong opponent of torture and other ill-treatment of numerous detainees in US custody at the Guantanamo detention camp.
In its latest efforts to bring those responsible to justice, HRW recently released a petition calling on the Obama administration to order a full criminal investigation into torture and other serious abuses at Guantanamo Bay.
In the petition, HRW says that despite overwhelming evidence of torture and other ill-treatment of numerous detainees in US custody after 9/11, the US government has not held a single senior official accountable.
Whether the HRW petition will amount to any significant changes, it serves as an important tool to pressure the US Government and ensure that what happened at Guantanamo will not be forgotten or swept under the carpet.
The campaign is still ongoing and you can sign the petition here.
For other not-for-profit and human rights campaigns, including anti-torture initiatives, we recommend that you visit the brilliant ‘resource for all things in the world of non-profit and social messaging’ website www.osocio.org
It has been nearly a week since a devastating earthquake ripped through Nepal, leaving a trail of death and destruction. With a death toll in the thousands and more casualties to come, the impoverished kingdom is struggling to provide shelter and relief to the survivors. Among the rubble is IRCT member centre, Centre for Victims of Torture (CVICT) that explains how Nepal’s need for help extends far beyond the immediate aid efforts.
“We all are safe at CVICT, but we are still feeling scared and only stay at open places,” writes CVICT’s Jamuna Poudyal in an email after letting us know that all staff at the torture rehabilitation centre are safe.
Based in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, Ms Poudyal and her colleagues witnessed how the 7.8-magnitude earthquake – Nepal’s worst in 80 years – levelled historical monuments and whole buildings in just a matter of few moments.
“Many people lost their life when their houses collapsed,” says Ms Poudyal. “People in the Kathmandu Valley still feel that their life is in danger because of the many aftershocks.”
According to the UN, more than eight million people in Nepal have been affected by the earthquake and some 70,000 houses have been destroyed.
Shailendra Guragain, also from CVICT, explains how priorities have suddenly changed at the centre: “Torture victims are not the first priority this week. People in jail and custody living without roof and without medicine are also not a priority now. Wounded people from the disaster is our current top priority.”
But as the world is concentrating on reaching out to as many people as possible and providing necessities such as shelter, food, medicine and clothes to the survivors, Ms Poudyal makes a point of highlighting the urgent need for psychological assistance to the people who have witnessed death and destruction on a scale that most of us cannot fathom.
“The government of Nepal and most of the aid organisations present in Nepal are focusing on relief packages, including medical and food. But people are suffering from psychological problems as well,” explains Poudyal.
“There is a huge need for psychological first aid to the people.”
In all corners of the world, there are people whose support for the anti-torture movement makes an enormous difference to torture survivors, their families and caregivers. Among them are some high profile individuals who are using their name and status to raise awareness about torture and to promote justice for torture victims. We highlight four of them and their actions, and look at why the movement needs more supporters like them.
It is not every day that a blog on torture includes a famous rapper, a retired bishop and a baptist minister, but that is nonetheless the case with our list of anti-torture supporters:
#1 Mos Def
The first on our list is American rapper and actor Mos Def, also known as Yasiin Bey. In addition to his music and acting career, Mos Def is a strong supporter of the anti-torture movement and he has taken unorthodox measures to raise awareness about torture and ill treatment. Most notably, he starred in a campaign video for human rights organisation Reprieve, in which he volunteered to be force-fed through the nose to bring attention to the force-feeding of 44 detainees on hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay.
The video was released in July 2013 via the Guardian, and quickly went viral. In fact, it became the eight most viewed video in the history of The Guardian. But not everyone was a fan of the project. The following year, Mos Def, who lives in South Africa, was forced to cancel his tour in the United States after immigration refused his entry to the country.
#2 Desmond Tutu
Nobel Peace Laureate, Archbishop and human rights activist – Desmond Tutu’s many roles and achievements make others pale in comparison. A leading figure in the justice and racial reconciliation movement in South Africa, Desmond Tutu is also a strong advocate for a world free from torture.
Before retiring, he voiced criticism of serious violations of human rights, including Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe and the Israeli government’s mistreatment of Palestinians.
Desmond Tutu may be retired, but he is still involved in the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre, which he founded together with his wife in 1998. He is also protector of IRCT member centre in Denmark DIGNITY, and continues to speak out against torture.
#3 Rev. Jesse Jackson
In addition to being a Baptist minister and former politician, Jesse Jackson is one of America’s most renowned civil rights activists. While many know him for his work with the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson has also been very vocal in ensuring justice for victims of torture. He has for years been a supporter of the many men who were tortured by Chicago police, led by former Commander Jon Burge, during the 1970s and 1980s. When the Mayor of Chicago recently issued an apology and proposed a $5.5 million reparations fund for dozens of torture victims, Jesse Jackson called for a “truth and reconciliation commission”, saying if it was good enough for South Africa it is good enough for Chicago.
“Because Jon Burge was in charge, he was the commander,” Jackson said. “He did not do this alone. Other police witnessed Jon Burge torturing these men.”
#4 Rage Against the Machine, REM, Nine Inch Nails and others
The last one on our list is not just one person, but a group of musicians whose efforts we thought should be mentioned.
Upon discovering that their music had been used in interrogations of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, high profile musicians such as REM, Pearl Jam and Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor joined the Close Gitmo Now campaign.
Launched in 2009, Close Gitmo Now is a coalition of activists, artists and retired generals aiming to put pressure on US politicians to close the Guantanamo Bay detention centre.
Speaking out against Guantanamo Bay and the use of music as no-touch torture there, Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine said:
“Guantanamo is known around the world as one of the places where human beings have been tortured – from water boarding, to stripping, hooding and forcing detainees into humiliating sexual acts – playing music for 72 hours in a row at volumes just below that to shatter the eardrums. Guantanamo may be Dick Cheney’s idea of America, but it’s not mine. The fact that music I helped create was used in crimes against humanity sickens me – we need to end torture and close Guantanamo now.”
The need for more high profile supporters
While the support of well-known musicians or other high profile individuals alone is not enough, it can raise public awareness and influence the general debate. Guantanamo Bay is the prime example of this. Although the world’s most notorious detention camp still remains in operation, what goes on there never fully escapes public scrutiny.
Sadly, in other parts of the world, there are numerous cases of torture that will never receive even a fraction of the attention that Guantanamo Bay gets. Not enough people care. If torture victims had the support of a well-known name, they might be able to get the attention they need to bring the perpetrators to justice. The same goes for most torture rehabilitation centres that often struggle financially. Without this form of support, it can be difficult to attract potential donors or raise additional funds. One of the biggest challenges in the fight against torture is apathy. The support of famous people can make a difference.
“I am tired of it, tired of my body. Tired of my soul. I can only see that it’s getting more and more sick as time goes by.”
Much research has been done on the link between physical exercise and mental health. So far, focus has largely been on how an active lifestyle may help alleviate symptoms such as depression and chronic pain, but a group of Danish researchers have gone in a different direction, introducing traumatised refugees to the relatively unknown Basic Body Awareness Therapy.
Basic Body Awareness Therapy (BBAT) is a form of physiotherapy that is often used for psychiatric patients in Scandinavian countries. Stemming from different movement systems of Western and Eastern traditions, it focuses on movements related to posture, coordination, free breathing and awareness.
Over a period of 14 weeks, four physiotherapists at the Competence Centre for Transcultural Psychiatry in Copenhagen took a group of traumatised refugees from Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon through weekly 90-minute BBAT group sessions.
A mainly nonverbal therapeutic process supported by short talks, BBAT is believed to strengthen the patients’ confidence in their own resources. Echoing this, the Danish sessions led to a growing self-confidence among the participants, with some even beginning to feel a sense of control over their own bodies.
“I have learnt how to concentrate myself away from pain. It starts by lying and thinking about
the skin and about something nice. Then everything goes away,” explained one of the participants.
“After all the traumas my body has been through, I feel good that it is still working,” said another.
Traumatised refugees are likely to suffer from (symptoms related to) Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As a consequence, their interest in participating in activities they once enjoyed has diminished.
For some participants, being part of a group not only motivated them to go to the sessions, but also helped them through the exercises.
“In my case, it’s better to be in a group. When we start doing the exercises, I am focusing on how the others are doing them and my attention is there. I don’t think about my pain during that moment. The thought of pain is distracted by their presence, because they are there.”
Others, who were initially cautious of group sessions, were positively surprised by the unity and solidarity that came from being part of a group.
“In the beginning we were wary of each other, because we didn’t know each other.
Afterwards, when we got to know each other, it got better. I was scared of receiving therapy in
a group, but I think it was a good experience.”
So what can we take away from the Danish study?
After the 14 weeks, the majority of participants expressed satisfaction with BBAT. Some felt happier while others had experienced increased body awareness helping them to reduce or cope with the pain.
“The physiotherapy that we are used to normally involves you going to a physiotherapist to get a massage. And this is something totally different, that you should learn to know your body and react according to the problems you have.”
In terms of participants, the study was small, but what it lacked in numbers it made up for in depth, enabling participants to express any progress or regress they experienced during the BBAT sessions. The encouraging results of the qualitative study suggest the need for further research on BBAT and traumatised refugees.
A bigger study could give us the certainty. But for now, it seems that BBAT could be a key component in the treatment of traumatised refugees.
To read the latest issue of Torture Journal click here.
The use of torture is a contentious topic that has caused a myriad of heated arguments between those who believe the practice can be justified and those who say that it is a serious human rights violation that can never be tolerated. As a result, many myths and misconceptions have sprung up about torture, poisoning the debate.
In this blog we debunk 7 of the most common myths about torture.
Torture works and there are no better alternatives
In the wake of last year’s release of the CIA torture report, there has been an ongoing and toxic debate over the use of torture. Does it work? Is it really that bad? The defenders of torture argue that had it not been for the CIA’s torture program, cities like London would have been hit by terrorist attacks. They also claim that at times, torture is a necessary evil to keep us all safe.
These are just some of many misconceptions about torture. Not only do we now know that what took place at Guantanamo Bay actually led to false confessions and stories, history also tells us that torture is not an effective means of acquiring intelligence.
Torture always leaves visible scars and is easy to document
That is not always the case. Unlike the infamous torture methods used in the Middle Ages, states today are trying very hard to hide their crimes. Thus, many torture methods leave little or no physical marks. Some examples are mock executions, temperature manipulation, sensory torture (noise and light), waterboarding (mock drowning), threats of harm to friends or family, and sleep deprivation. Increasingly sophisticated methods are harder to document, and the effects they produce more likely to be invisible, thus contributing to impunity.
Torture is anything awful done to a person
While the CIA ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ are torture, getting up early in the morning for work and doing the dishes is not. The UN Convention against Torture includes a widely accepted definition of torture. Torture always involves:
- severe pain or suffering, physical or mental
- extraction of information or a confession, punishment, intimidation or coercion, or discrimination of any kind
- a public official or person in an official capacity (the perpetrator)
Torture is a thing of the past
Most people connect torture to the Middle Ages and some have visited medieval torture museums to learn about this ancient practice. Back then, torture was considered a legitimate way to extract confessions, punish offenders, and perform executions. It turns out, torture is not history. The IRCT network of torture rehabilitation clinics treated more than 100,000 victims of torture according to its last census. Amnesty recently reported that more than 140 countries around the world still use torture. And in many countries, police officers are ignorant about the fact that torture constitutes a crime under international law and humane alternatives to torture exist.
Torture is only used in war, in a few countries
There are constantly new cases of torture happening away from armed conflicts and war. As an example, police brutality or torture in detention are both serious problems in a great majority of countries. In fact, Amnesty International has in the past five years reported torture and abuse in more than 140 countries.
Torture victims are either criminals or terrorists
Anyone can be a victim of torture – children as well as adults, young as well as old, religious as well as atheists, intellectuals and the uneducated alike.
Nobody is immune, although members of a particular political, religious, ethnic group or minority are at higher risk of being targets of government-endorsed violence. Frequent victims include politicians, union leaders, journalists, health professionals, human rights defenders, people in detention or prison, members of ethnic minorities, and student leaders.
Another large group of victims are poor people. Poverty makes people vulnerable to abuses and leaves them without the ways and means of defending their rights.
Not all forms of torture are bad
Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person to obtain information, punish, intimidate or coerce is never justified. There is no such thing as one method being less harmful than the other.
All forms of torture are horrific violations of human rights – including beating, electric shocks, stretching, submersion, suffocation, burns, rape and sexual assault, isolation, threats, humiliation, mock executions, mock amputations, and witnessing the torture of others.
The consequences of torture — any torture — reach far beyond immediate pain and can leave long-term scars on the victims.
Forced virginity testing is a serious human rights violation and at its worst it constitutes rape and torture. This is how a group of experts have described the highly controversial practice that is used to determine a woman’s virginity.
In the past few months, Indonesia has made headlines around the world for all the wrong reasons. Late last year, the country unwittingly found itself in the spotlight when it emerged that the national government subjected female applicants for Indonesia’s National Police to “discriminatory and degrading virginity tests.”
When a few months later a local Indonesian MP proposed that all girls should be subjected to virginity tests in order to graduate from school, it sparked an outcry. Shortly after, the deputy head of the district announced that the proposal had been scrapped.
Sadly, Indonesia is far from the only place where forced virginity testing is still happening despite the practice being illegal in many states.
Recent cases in Egypt and Afghanistan reaffirm that this gruesome practice is flourishing in many countries around the world.
For those unfamiliar with the practice it may seem like a simple intervention, but according to the Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG) – a group of more than 30 of the world’s leading forensic experts – forcibly conducted virginity testing is likely to cause severe and lasting psychological symptoms and disabilities that remain over time.
“The practice can cause women to feel intense humiliation, self-disgust, and worthlessness, especially since examinations are likely to involve other forms of abuse such as unconsented touching or groping, as well as threats, coercion or force,” the group said in a recent statement.
The IFEG also pointed that the practice has zero scientific value and at is worst it constitutes torture and rape.
“Health professionals have no medical foundation for conducting virginity examinations,” it said.
The IFEG is not the only group of experts condemning forced virginity testing. In December last year, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) joined the growing opposition against the tests, calling on states to end the ‘degrading, discriminatory, and unscientific “virginity testing” of women and girls.’
So why do states continue to carry out these tests?
Most experts agree that the larger issue at stake here is the perception of and the treatment of women in these countries. In some instances forced virginity testing has the effect or purpose of controlling women and denying them their rights.
“Prejudice and negative stereotypes against women and girls are passed off as medical science by many doctors who wrongly believe they can determine a woman’s virginity,” explained women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch, Liesl Gerntholtz.
While there is a growing focus on what we know as sexual violence against women, forced virginity testing is still just one issue on a long list of overlooked violations against women and girls.
There is hope, however, that the highly publicised cases in Indonesia and Egypt will change this.
Meanwhile, Secretary-General of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), Victor Madrigal-Borloz has reminded doctors of their responsibility to respect human rights.
“As a movement made of health professionals, we are in a key position to condemn forced virginity testing, often carried out by health professionals in a clear violation of professional ethics and international human rights.”
Around the world, conflicts and humanitarian crises result in migratory flows of millions of asylum seekers, refugees and internally displaced persons every year. According to health professionals and researchers, as many as 35% of refugees worldwide could be victims of torture.
It used to be that those lucky enough to be near a torture rehabilitation centre were able to seek treatment, but in many places the number of victims of torture has now reached a point where the need for rehabilitation exceeds the services available.
To support victims of torture, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) last year adopted and promoted a policy on the Right to Rehabilitation in accordance with the United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT) Comment 3.
The policy highlights the obligation of states to ensure that victims of torture have free and prompt access to rehabilitation services. Sadly, as the rehabilitation sector is facing a funding crisis, this commitment is more important than ever.
For many rehabilitation centres, the future is not looking bright. They operate in situations where their fate is continuously uncertain and because of a reduction in funding, some of them are even at risk of closing.
Yet, getting states to fully commit to the rehabilitation of victims of torture is not an easy task. This is something that becomes particularly apparent in countries where torture is carried out by the state, and where health professionals and rehabilitation service providers are constantly under threat.
Whether it is doctors being arrested and tortured simply for trying to save lives in Syria or rehabilitation centres in Latin America being exposed to threats and other intimidation tactics, it is clear that access to health and in particular, the right to rehabilitation is far from a reality in many parts of the world.
So how do we face these challenges?
An important step is to change the way that everyone from states and governments to the people they govern perceive torture and rehabilitation for torture victims. Those who believe that the practice of torture can be justified must be reminded that it is a serious human rights violation that can never be tolerated.
In addition, decision makers need to understand that rehabilitation should not be a service provided mostly by civil society organisations if and when international agencies and philanthropists decide to fund it. In fact, each and every state has a responsibility to ensure that torture victims everywhere have free and prompt access to rehabilitation services.
Without this change in attitude, political will and appropriate funding, we cannot guarantee that victims of torture receive the rehabilitation services they need.
And without offering rehabilitation to victims of torture, we are denying hundreds of thousands of people worldwide their last and only hope to reclaim their life and dignity, lost at the hands of perpetrators.
“Emotionally I felt so much rage. All I thought about was revenge. I was constantly in a defensive mood. Everyone who knew me had to walk on eggshells.”
For A.M. in Armenia, torture did not just take its toll on his body, but on his mind too. The trauma from being tortured made him an angry and defensive person who mistrusted almost everyone with severe consequences for his family and community.
A.M.’s story is far from unique. Across the globe, torture rehabilitation centres help thousands of victims of torture each year.
What makes torture such a heinous crime is the fact that its impact goes far beyond the immediate physical or psychological pain. Torture can have serious long-term physical and mental health consequences for the victims.
Here are six ways that torture can affect a person:
The story of A.M. illustrates how torture and abuse can leave a victim angry and defensive years after the crime took place. The smallest things can trigger a reaction and start an argument. Family and friends will often be fearful of the victim, leaving the person isolated and ostracised. Social isolation and loneliness can have a negative impact on a person’s physical, mental and social health.
An anxiety disorder differs from normal stress and anxiety.
Torture survivors who suffer from an anxiety disorder are likely to feel a constant and unsubstantiated worry that causes significant distress and interferes with daily life. They will often struggle with recurring nightmares or flashbacks.
For some, certain sounds or sights associated with the trauma can trigger severe anxiety attacks or emotional numbing. This could be the sight of a person in uniform or the sound of footsteps approaching. As a vicious cycle, an anxiety attack is worsened by the fear of having another one.
A person suffering from anxiety will try to avoid social situations for fear of being judged, embarrassed, or humiliated.
Depression is widespread among survivors of torture. People suffering from depression often lose interest and pleasure in activities and are unable to work, sleep, study, eat, and enjoy life. They also feel worthless or find it hard to concentrate. At its worst, they may experience recurring thoughts of death and suicide.
For different reasons, torture victims suffering from depression are often reluctant to seek treatment, which can have serious consequences for their health, including self-harm and insomnia. Research also shows that the longer a person waits before seeking treatment, the greater the damage can be in the long-term.
Emotional numbing and avoidance
A torture survivor suffering from emotional numbing and avoidance will go to great lengths to avoid any thoughts, conversations, activities, places or people that trigger a recollection of the trauma. The survivor may be profoundly emotionally constricted and detached. This can lead to social withdrawal and isolation.
A person suffering from hyperarousal symptoms has an extremely heightened alertness of his or her surrounding environment and can easily be startled.
Hyperarousal symptoms are usually constant and not triggered by an event or episode. The symptoms can leave the torture victim feeling stressed and angry, and not able to sleep, eat or concentrate. In addition, the person will often struggle with carrying out simple daily activities, such as getting dressed or going to the supermarket.
A person suffering from hyperarousal symptoms may also experience irritability or have outbursts of anger.
Some 51% of torture victims suffer from sexual dysfunction, which is particularly common among those who have suffered sexual torture or rape. It can also be linked to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or it can be a direct result of an assault.
Sexual dysfunction affects not only the relationship between victims and their partners, but may also affect the way victims interact with family, friends and colleagues. In addition, it is likely to affect their confidence, their enjoyment in life, and their morale. Instead, they will often feel isolated and alone.
Many of the symptoms mentioned above are common in torture victims who have been diagnosed with PTSD. Other PTSD symptoms include insomnia, intrusive thoughts, nervousness and feelings of helplessness.
This is, however, just a small part of something much more complex. The psychological effects of torture vary from person to person which means that treatment should be the result of an individual assessment. Many torture rehabilitation centres offer holistic treatment that takes into account the individual needs of their clients.
In the case of A.M., he was able to rebuild his life and cope with his anger after seeking help at IRCT member centre FAVL.
“Thanks to FAVL, I have been granted a new spirit in life and have dampened the raging anger I had inside me,” said A.M. “Therapy has played a major role in getting me better again, rebuilding my relationships and becoming who I want to be.”
At IRCT member centre, Survivors of Torture International (SURVIVORS) it is the little things that matter. Something as small as a bus ticket can mean the difference between treatment and no treatment for torture victims.
Staff at SURVIVORS treat many refugees and asylum seekers who have limited or no financial resources and support network. Getting to the centre is a big challenge for those who do not live nearby, especially because public transportation in Southern California is restrictive and challenging to navigate, even for those who speak the language and are familiar with the city.
Then there are the exorbitant costs of public transportation. One thing is to work out how to get there, another thing is to pay for the tickets.
Until now, SURVIVORS has been able to offer bus tickets or other help with transportation to any client in need, but a reduction in funding has forced the centre to make some tough decisions.
Sadly, SURVIVORS’ story is far from unique. Across the world, rehabilitation centres have seen a decrease in funding from donors focusing on immediate results over holistic rehabilitation.
Despite these challenges, the San Diego centre will continue to treat the same number of clients as before, but now the centre staff can no longer offer some of its most desperate clients help with transportation.
“While our financial situation won’t affect the number of clients that we’re treating, it will however impact many of our clients who are asylum seekers with little or no financial support. These clients rely on public transport to get to the actual center, but with less funds, SURVIVORS won’t be able to help pay for their bus tickets, as we used to,” says Executive Director of SURVIVORS, Kathi Anderson.
Kathi Anderson explains how one of the centre’s clients is a woman who is 6 month pregnant. Alone in a new country and without any support network, this small token has made a huge difference to her. Kathi Anderson is worried that if they do not continue to help her pay her bus tickets, she is not able to turn up for her treatment.
Since it opened in 1997, SURVIVORS has helped thousands of survivors of torture to recover from their traumas by offering them a range of services, including medical, dental, psychiatric, psychological, and social care.
The staff has seen first-hand how the number of refugees and asylum seekers in need of treatment is increasing. The many armed conflicts and humanitarian crises worldwide means that for the first time since the Second World War, the number of refugees and asylum seekers on a global basis has exceeded 50 million. This development has put enormous pressure on rehabilitation centres like SURVIVORS.
Exacerbating the situation for SURVIVORS is the news that a nearby government-run detention centre for immigrants is moving to a new facility, doubling its size. Being the only rehabilitation centre in the area, the centre fears that it will be forced to turn away immigrants with nowhere else to go.
When asked if there are any alternatives nearby for those torture victims they will not be able to help, Kathi Anderson replies:
“The nearest rehabilitation centre is in Los Angeles which is a 3 hour and 76$ train ride each way. I can’t imagine that there are too many refugees who can afford this or have the mental strength to get on that train.”
To find out more about SURVIVORS, visit their website www.notorture.org.