Archive for July, 2012

UK should not welcome torturers to the 2012 Olympics

Protesters march through Manama, Bahrain in March 2011 during the height of the public demonstrations against the current government. Hundreds of protesters have been arrested in a violent crackdown; several dozen have been killed and many have reported being tortured in detention. Photo by Al Jazeera English, available through Creative Commons License.

“I fell on the ground repeatedly. He kept hitting me over and over again and asked the torturer to join him…”

This is the testimony of one of 13 opposition activists in Bahrain that were arrested and tortured following the demonstrations last year in the island nation. According to the testimony, the man who tortured those detained, is none other than Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, son of the king and head of Bahrain’s Olympic committee.

Following demonstrations in the Persian Gulf nation during 2011’s Arab Spring, hundreds of opposition leaders and activists were arrested and charged with numerous crimes, including attempting to overthrow the regime. Allegations of torture in Bahraini detention facilities following the government crackdown were even corroborated by a regime-funded investigation. Abdulla Isa Al-Mahroo, Swedish citizen Mohammed Habib Al-Muqdad and 64-year-old Mohammed Hassan Jawad all reported that Prince Nasser in particular was present and/or fully participated in their torture and beating in detention.

The London 2012 Olympics begin tomorrow and, in common with other recent high profile international sports and entertainment events, has stoked the debate on the interplay between human rights and sports. In Bahrain earlier this year, the Formula 1 rally led to increased opposition protests andinternational calls for a boycott, yet it eventually took place unhindered. And just a few weeks ago, the EUFA Euro 2012 led to heated debate over the attendance of European political figures at the matches in Ukraine, where torture is systematically employed in police detention and where former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko remains detained on charges that many believe are politically motivated.

More than 200 nations will participate in the London games, with tens of thousands of athletes, coaches, political figures and an estimated four million visitors expected to descend on London over the next two weeks.

In the lead-up to the games, UK foreign minister William Hague warned that the British government would not issue visas for individuals or officials from regimes committing human rights abuses. Yet, so far, only one official – General Mowaffak Joumaa, head of Syria’s National Olympic Committee – is believed to have been denied a visa on these grounds.

Yet Prince Nasser will apparently be welcomed into the UK. It seems that Hague’s ‘rule’ has only been applied in the one case of Syria rather than as a consistent and clear policy.

The UK should apply this across the board – those who torture should not be allowed to attend the Olympic Games.
Click here to sign an Avaaz Community petition, calling on British and Olympic officials to ban Prince Nasser from attending the Olympics.

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Brazil’s torture exam (Part 1)

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part look at Brazil’s recent review by the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture. For more info, please read our earlier story, published just after members of the Subcommittee visited Brazil.

 

The United Nations examination of Brazil’s detention system is over, and in the spirit of transparency, Brazil has released the report produced by the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT).

The SPT first examined the country’s legal and institutional frameworks, healthcare system, impunity, corruption, and reprisals. It then inspected Brazil’s detention system and the conditions of penitentiary institutions.

While the legal framework in Brazil is, according to the Subcommittee, “adequate”, there is a worrying gap between the legal framework and its application in practice; the Subcommittee saw most of the rights and guarantees within the legal framework being widely ignored.

As noted by the Special Rapporteur on Torture following his visit in 2001, many of the recommendations in their report would merely require the authorities to abide by existing Brazilian law.

The SPT expressed the concern that “the current institutional framework in Brazil does not provide for sufficient protection against torture and ill-treatment.”

On the one hand, the public defence system lacks autonomy, as well as the necessary financial and human resources. On the other hand, the country’s judges aren’t asking questions about detainees’ treatment during interrogation, and continue to use evidence obtained through torture.

Furthermore, the country’s forensic doctors are subordinated to the state, undermining the independence of forensic medical documentation, a powerful source of evidence against torture.

In terms of healthcare, the situation is “extremely worrying”. The overall concerns include the lack of financial, material and human resources and the subordination of health services to the security services. All detainees should be offered a medical examination as soon as possible after their initial detention, and such examination must be independent, free of charge and conducted in accordance with the Istanbul Protocol, writes the SPT.

“Impunity for acts of torture was pervasive and was evidenced by a generalized failure to bring perpetrators to justice, as well as by the persistence of a culture that accepts abuses by public officials.”

The SPT was seriously concerned about the allegations of corruption. Examples included “detainees bribing policemen 10,000 Brazilian reais (approx. 4000 Eur) to be freed; police officers stealing evidence; detainees paying bribes in order to satisfy basic needs, such as access to fresh air, relatives having to pay in order to be able to visit detainees; etc.”

 

Look for Part 2 of Brazil’s torture exam next week.

 

Fabio is a Communications Officer and Assistant Editor of Torture Journal at IRCT.

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Human rights defenders: those who fight through the risks

Fighting against torture and other human rights violations puts defenders at great personal risk; sharing their stories can help

Just over two years ago –  on 6 July 2010 –  Dr Germán Antonio Ramírez Herrera was assassinated outside of his office in Los Ríos province, Ecuador. A forensic doctor and expert, Dr Herrera had been documenting cases of torture with PRIVA, a local IRCT member centre.

According to reports, three individuals in a car and a fourth on a motorcycle were seen by witnesses at the scene. Dr Herrera was shot twice – once in his mouth and once in his stomach. He was leaving his office at around noon on that day, the same day that PRIVA, an IRCT member centre, was presenting the doctor’s findings to the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions. Dr Herrera had previously received numerous threats as a result of his documentation and reporting of torture and extrajudicial killings in Ecuadorian prisons.

Human rights defenders are a group at near-constant risk: risk of torture, risk of enforced disappearance, harassment (including physical, mental or judicial). They often live at risk because they point to the crimes and human rights violations committed those in power – whether political, economic, or physical.

For those in the fight against torture, this can be particularly dangerous work. Human rights defenders may document, investigate and pursue torture allegations. And who are the torturers? Per definition, they are agents of the state, who likely have little interest in seeing these cases pursued.

Just last week, we highlighted the ongoing harassment of human rights defender Igor Kalyapin, chairman of the IRCT member the Interregional Committee Against Torture.

Kalyapin has been interrogated by the Russian Special Investigation Department and has learned that criminal proceedings are being pursued. This, sadly, is not a firstKalyapin last year was awarded the Front Line Defenders Award for Human Rights Defenders At-Risk. And the Interregional Committee Against Torture has participated in the last few years in the Joint Mobile Group, a conglomerated group of human rights defenders that investigate violations and crimes. After the murder of Natalya Estemirova, a Chechen human rights activist, the group was established to prevent further crimes against defenders.

With such risks ever-present, what we can all do is to highlight the defenders; we must highlight their work and sometimes their harassment to ensure their safety. The more well-known human rights defenders are, the more their work and threats are known around the world, the less likely it is that they will be attacked.

So for the safety of all human rights defenders, we ask those who read this blog or follow us or other organizations on Twitter or Facebook – spread the messages. Share urgent actions and shed light on the human rights defenders at-risk.

Scott is IRCT’s Head of Communications

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Tracking politically motivated violence against women in Zimbabwe

With elections in Zimbabwe expected later this year, human rights groups are preparing for the surges of violence and torture that have become a disturbingly common feature of Zimbabwean elections. Women, in particular, have been heavily targeted during these election periods, resulting in a chilling effect on women’s participation in the political process. This is especially troubling since participation in the political process is an important aspect of reducing inequality and securing basic human rights.

According to the Zimbabwean Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU), in the three months around the June 2008 elections, an estimated 2,000 women and girls were raped by state-sanctioned groups.

RAU has followed this issue closely, extensively monitoring and reporting on the phenomenon of politically motivated violence, particularly as it relates to women. In a 2009 documentary entitled “Hear Us”, RAU partnered with Witness to record the accounts of four women whose lives were tragically and permanently affected by the violence of the 2008 elections.

During the recordings, one of the women makes a compellingly simple request of aspiring politicians: “I want them to realise that a woman is also a human being just like them…we wish that they would understand that when they are campaigning, they should not beat people, chase people away from their communities, burn people’s houses; all that should not happen in life”

The IRCT has recently partnered with RAU to support a new initiative entitled “An innovative approach to monitoring political violence against women in Zimbabwe.” Under this project, RAU will develop and test a hub for enhanced monitoring of violence and torture against women in the lead-up to the 2012 elections. This will include a real time reporting systems with a warning system in place for human rights defenders and communities at risk, the collection of data that would support legal actions, and the production of advocacy reports on violence and intimidation against women. The goal is to provide women with practical support tools with the aim of reducing incidents of violence, ending impunity for perpetrators and providing research to better understand and monitor the problem of political violence against women. If successful, a similar model may be developed in other countries in the region.

As the election draw closer, the IRCT will keep you updated on the progress of this project.

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News round-up

The trial against Ratko Mladic, the former Serbian Army general who stands accused of the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, begins at the Hague war crimes tribunal. As we’ve stated before, we hope that the trial, although it can never amend the horrendous crimes of Srebrenica, Sarejevo and other human rights violations of the Bosnian conflict, it may bring these crimes to light and bring justice to the victims – and most hopefully to their families. Bringing these crimes to light is of utmost importance, especially in a context such as Serbia where many still disbelieve or don’t acknowledge that the horrors of the conflict happened.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll recognise the name of this centre: the Interregional Nongovernmental Committee Against Torture, who has contributed to World Without Torture one several occasions about their work, particularly in Chechnya, against impunity, has recently faced increased and targeted harassment of their chairman Igor Kalyapin. Kalyapin has been interrogated by the Special Investigation Department, and learned that criminal proceedings have been initiated by the Federal Security Service. CAT is very concerned about this ongoing matter and invites all to write to the relevant Russian bodies to register your concern:

The FSB:
Moscow, 107031, Bolshaya Lubyanka st., 1/3
Fax: 007 (495) 914-26-32
fsb@fsb.ru

The Investigational committee:
Fax 007 (495) 640-10-48
Moscow, 105005, Tekhnicheskiy pereulok, 2
Info@sledcom.ru

Below, watch a video of Kalyapin when he was awarded the Front Line Defenders Award for Human Rights Defenders At-Risk

 

The Women’s Media Center project Women Under Seige has been mapping sexual violence and torture against women in Syria. Using crowdsourcing, anecdotal stories from the victims, doctors, witnesses themselves, allowing them to speak out against these horrific crimes, and use the data to map where, how and when this takes place. Stories coming from the besieged country are increasingly horrific. “[Sexual violence] appears to be widespread, not limited to any particular city, and often involves rape.”

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“I believe that we who were tortured will never be the same”

Documentary features the stories of four torture survivors

A still from the documentary After Life: 4 Stories of Torture, directed by Mervi Junkkonen

Although today another documentary premieres on Channel 4, we realised we had neglected to share this deeply impressive documentary After Life: 4 Stories of Torture.

After Life follows the life of four torture survivors who have moved to Helsinki, Finland after escaping their homelands. Their daily lives are filled with reminders and confrontations with their past – a past marked by the violence, betrayal and fear of being tortured. Magnificently shot in stark contrasts and extreme close-ups, Mervi Junkkonen’s direction is both lonely and bleak and yet deeply moving.

The IRCT co-sponsored a screening and post-screening discussion with the director at the One World International Human Rights Festival in Brussels, Belgium earlier this year.

Visit the film festival website for a trailer of the film.

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“This is an area that binds us to others”: forensic experts in the fight against torture

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from an editorial in the newest issue of TORTURE, a multidisciplinary academic journal focusing on rehabilitation of torture victims and the prevention of torture. Find the newest edition here and all the archives.

Duarte Nuno Vieira is the former president of the International Association of Forensic Experts, Professor of Forensic Medicine and Forensic Sciences at University of Coimbra, and Head of the National Institute of Forensic Medicine of Portugal. He is a member of the IRCT’s International Forensic Expert Group.

In 1948, humanity marked an important milestone with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One of its 30 articles (Article 5) stipulates that no one shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Since then, there have been a number of other international regulations that have reinforced the legal obligation of states to prevent, prohibit, criminalize and investigate alleged cases of torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment (CIDT), as well as the obligation to ensure that all perpetrators are forced to answer for their actions and that victims receive appropriate reparation.

However, some 65 years later, there continues to be a marked discrepancy between the law and reality. Torture, illtreatment and detention in terrible conditions continue to occur all over the world, including in countries that are generally considered to be paragons of virtue in the sphere of human rights. The public scandals that erupted in 2004 as a result of the abuse and ill-treatment in the prisons of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are a case in point. Who can remain indifferent to the terrible images broadcast about the world of the atrocities perpetrated in those places?

This lamentable situation reinforces the need for a more thorough and systematic investigation of these practices in all countries. Such an investigation is essential if we are to eradicate ongoing abuses and prevent new cases and even possible deaths. Because thorough investigation is necessary to ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice, that victims receive proper reparation (compensation, rehabilitation and other forms of redress to which they are entitled), and that official bodies and the general public are made aware of such practices in order to prohibit them completely and encourage reform.

The investigation of torture and CIDT or punishment is not, however, an easy task. Such practices usually occur behind closed doors where there are no witnesses and are systematically denied by states and authorities. The methods used are becoming increasingly sophisticated, designed to leave no physical marks. Victims are kept in isolation, without access to lawyers, doctors or family members (at least while the physical signs of ill-treatment remain visible). Fear of reprisals against themselves or their families often leads them to deny or hide this reality. Even to assess detention conditions (that often amount to a form of CIDT or punishment) may be a complex matter, given the restricted access to them.

However, today we have valuable guidelines about how to proceed in the investigation and documentation of such situations. The Istanbul Protocol in one of the examples, obtaining growing international recognition day by day for the important role that it can play in this process. There has been increased investment in the training of professionals able to investigate and document torture and other forms of CIDT or punishment. There have been more (and better) studies of this phenomenon published in scientific journals. National and international scientific associations are now giving more attention to the question.

Thus, the panorama with regard to the investigation and documentation of such cases has changed radically in recent decades, with considerable advances made. And there have been many valuable initiatives promoted by diverse organizations: for example, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture (IRCT) has, in recent years, promoted an important project for the use of Forensic Evidence Against Torture (FEAT), and this project has clearly played an important role in providing forensic opinions, leading to the formation of the International Forensic Expert Group (IFEG), currently involving 33 forensic health experts from 18 countries.

This has indeed been a remarkable achievement. Today, no one questions then role of the forensic medical expert, who has specific training in this domain, to assess possible injuries and signs of abuse, even in the absence of specific denunciations or accusations; to document the signs (physical and psychological) of a possible physical or psychological abuse; to interpret the proofs obtained and deduce their possible causes; to pronounce upon the extent to which medical proofs correlate with specific allegations made by the victim; to make effective use of the information obtained in order to document and publicise such practices and ensure that the legal and government authorities, at local, national and international level, are fully informed of the physical and psychological consequences of the type (or types) of torture used.

However, the mission of medical experts in the sphere of torture is far from easy. It often involves contact with people who carry within themselves the traumas of a life branded with misfortune and misery. All of us that work in this domain have heard the voices of the victims and their families, their mute cries of desperation and anguish, pain and rage. But we try every day to help them, to not give up on this world. And I am sure that everyone that works in this area has, during the course of their professional life, come into contact with situations that provide us with great spiritual nourishment. This is an area that binds us to others, and which involves seeking answers to some of the large (and small) questions of life. And it also involves adding to the real, reinventing the world that we have inherited.

Read the full editorial here

By Duarte Nuno Vieira

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Kashmir’s Torture Trail

In the most militarised place on earth, one man is standing up to the armed might of the world’s largest democracy. Kashmir’s Torture Trail follows a Kashmiri lawyer as he uncovers India’s violent secret.

Kashmir erupted in violent demonstrations in 2010, when hundreds of thousands of teenagers took to the streets pelting the Indian Security Forces with stones.

However, while the cameras were drawn elsewhere, there followed a vicious crackdown, which by the time it had finished in April of last year, had all but cleared the streets, extinguishing the demonstrations.

A team from True Vision, a documentary-film company, filmed while lawyer Parvez Imroz and his field workers uncovered a network of torture centres that sprouted up throughout the mountainous state of Kashmir, all of them using identical torture methods, creating a profound fear among Kashmiris.

Donate to help the IRCT support the struggle against torture in Kashmir.

Kashmir’s Torture Trail will be on Channel 4 (UK), Tuesday 10 July at 11:10pm. Watch the film’s trailer

Read more at irct.org

 

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Participation vs. Paternalism: Collecting and sharing survivor testimony

Many may have noticed that in the two weeks leading up to the 26 June, we shared daily stories from the survivors of torture.

These stories came to us through our member centres – the more than 140 rehabilitation centres worldwide that treat victims of torture and their families. As experiences of torture and rehabilitation are a particularly delicate subject (for a multitude of reasons, but foremost is the autonomy of survivors, their privacy and concerns of re-traumatisation), we wanted to share how we go about balancing these concerns with the belief that sharing stories can be effective in rehabilitation.

Recently, staff of the IRCT Secretariat sat down to update our policy on collecting and sharing torture survivors’ testimony. Most of us would agree that survivor participation is a cornerstone of effective torture rehabilitation services, but it can be a difficult task finding this right balance between safeguarding the mental and physical health of survivors and respecting their autonomy.

While testimony can be a powerful way to give a voice to survivors in the anti-torture movement, it can carry significant mental and physical health risks. During the meeting, the doctors in the room worried openly about the re-traumatisation of survivors and reducing the risk of harm from government retaliation.

Lawyers in the room added concerns over how to make sure that survivors freely give their permission at all stages of collection and use of their stories. Members of the communications team saw personal testimony as an important way of introducing the voices and experiences of survivors in to the anti-torture discussion, but were keen to avoid sensationalising stories.

With all these concerns, collecting and publishing testimony of survivors seems like a scary proposition. But from our experience at the IRCT, we’ve seen that many torture survivors want a forum to publicly share their experiences and participate in the anti-torture movement even where it places them at risk of future violations. So our biggest obstacle was designing a policy that took our presumptions and fears out of the equation and provided a consistent method for us to realistically assess the dangers, provide accurate information to survivors and trust that survivors themselves are the best experts on their experiences, values, preferences and approach to risk.

After going through many versions, we ended up with a procedure that hopefully guides us through the process of equipping survivors with the right information for informed consent, and a providing a flexible way to evaluate the context, safety concerns, and wishes of the survivor when deciding how to use a story.

There are of course still many challenges and a fair amount of debate over the most responsible way to collect and publish survivor stories, but what’s clear is that sometimes the most valuable service we can offer is simply a platform for survivors to make their voices heard.

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