Archive for September, 2012

Dangerous delays in Denmark

Today Danish lawyer Christian Harlang filed a further two cases in which Danish troops are accused of complicity in torture during the ill-fated invasion and occupation of Iraq by western forces. The torture was documented by members of the IRCT’s Independent Forensic Expert Group.

While further details of the case – involving Iraqis who were tortured after being handed to Iraqi authorities by Danish troops – are in the news release from the IRCT, among its most disturbing aspects are the reasons for its delay.

Two new cases have been filed involving Danish troops’ complicity in torture during the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Photo by isafmedia.

Denmark has a huge responsibility as a result of these allegations. Indeed, as per its international legal obligations via instruments like the UN Convention against Torture and the European Convention on Human Rights, any allegations of torture must be taken very seriously and thoroughly investigated. Moreover, access to justice and reparation must be provided for the victims.

However, it seems that two arguments: that the case is too old, and, that the torture victims must pay costs of over €5,000 without access to legal aid, are acting as stumbling blocks.

Arguments are being made that such claims for damages cases must be brought within three years, as per Danish law. However, even within this Danish law there are exemptions to this rule that can be granted due to exceptional circumstances. And these surely are exceptional circumstances. Often it takes years for torture survivors to come to terms with what happened to them before they can begin to speak about it, let alone bring a court case over it. Moreover, it is not reasonable to expect people living in a strife-ridden country thousands of kilometres away to know the intricacies of the Danish legal system.

That such delays are happening in Denmark is particularly concerning. Denmark is generally known and respected for its efforts against torture globally. That torture has not only been linked to Danish troops, but that the Danish justice system appears to be throwing obstructions in the path of justice for these actions sends out a new and different message.

Scott McAusland is Head of Communications at the IRCT

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Strengthening the ties that bind us together

In his second month as IRCT Secretary-General Joost Martens writes about his experiences in meeting representatives from the membership and of the importance of continuous development for torture rehabilitation centres.

Earlier this month I was fortunate enough to meet with representatives from across the IRCT’s membership at a meeting of the IRCT Executive Committee (ExCom) here in Copenhagen. There was a lot to be discussed in the two days of meetings, around the challenges the movement is facing, with a special focus on the development of its membership.

Secretary-General Joost Martens, following the meeting of the IRCT ExCom

The 8 ExCom members and the IRCT President are elected by the 29 members of the IRCT Council who, in turn, are elected by the 146 member centres of the IRCT. They sit at the pinnacle of our democratic structure. This ExCom meeting was in effect their last meeting. A new three-year Council was elected over the summer and will meet in November, to elect the new President and the new ExCom.

As I said in my previous editorial last month, the IRCT exists because of its members; they provide the legitimacy for the Secretariat to speak out and act in representation of the global movement. And, it is at this time of year, during the northern autumn and southern spring, when not only the executive governance bodies of the IRCT meet, but, that the membership gets the opportunity to meet with one another and with staff from the Secretariat, in a series of regional meetings and seminars. The importance of these meetings and the possibilities that they offer for exchanges and learning cannot be overestimated.

In this regard, I was very pleased to hear back from colleagues in the Secretariat who had attended and led workshops at the first of this year’s regional meetings – that for the Middle East and North Africa region held in Jordan. Central to the gathering was a training session on how to better serve torture survivors through standardised data collection, which, while it may sound simple at first mention, is crucial in enabling health professionals to better advocate on behalf of torture survivors. You can read more about this in the blog pieces from Lars, a member of the Secretariat staff who helped organise and facilitate the meeting.

During the last week of September, I am joining our colleagues from the regional network of rehabilitation centres in Latin America for their regional meeting. I look forward on that occasion to seeing more of this exchange and learning in action. This will be an excellent opportunity for me to get to know many of the people working on torture rehabilitation in Latin America. One of the issues we will be talking about is related to the hiring of an IRCT regional coordinator for Latin America. This coordinator will be one of five regional posts that IRCT is in the process of recruiting; their positioning and activities in the different regions are expected to greatly enhance the interaction with the member centres.

I am looking forward to hearing about developments in Latin America, a region that has been working on torture rehabilitation since the start of the movement, and that has a lot to offer to the world in terms of innovation and learning about rehabilitation. In general, there is a wealth of knowledge among our members and the regional meetings and seminars provide good opportunities for this knowledge to be elevated, and subsequently be shared beyond the regions and across cultural and linguistic boundaries.

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Identifying torture survivors key for accessing rehabilitation

New project aims to train key staff in asylum reception to identify torture survivors

Two distressing stories simultaneously hit the news last month.

One from the UK reported that the Dover, UK immigration detention facility had dismissed outright detainees’ claims of torture, which was attributed to problematic reporting by their staff. The second from Australia was criticism from civil society and immigration experts on the new ‘Pacific Solution’; the return of Australia’s off-shore detention facilities, where, under previous administrations, refugees had remained for up to ten years.

What both of these have in common is the concern that torture survivors – who comprise up to a third of all forcibly displaced persons – will not be recognised as such.  This is troubling, as survivors of torture have a legal right to treatment and rehabilitation.

According to the European Council directives on the reception of asylum seekers, all EU countries must take into account the specific situation of vulnerable persons, such as persons who have been subjected to torture, rape or other forms of severe psychological, physical or sexual violence, and ensure that they receive the necessary treatment for the damages caused by those acts. Despite EU law requiring such procedures, only a handful of countries actually have such a procedure in place.

But how do you recognise a torture survivor? There are signs, of course, but some are more visible than others. Victims of torture, in particular those subject to sexual abuse or rape, are often extremely hesitate to relay their stories to authorities. The challenge lies in having the initial contacts – those first immigration officials or social workers at asylum reception – trained in being able to recognise the often ‘hidden’ signs of torture – even when the torture survivors themselves are unable to speak about their trauma.

This is the ultimate goal of the PROTECT-ABLE project, which began this year. It is a continuation of PROTECT, a collaboration between ten torture rehabilitation centres and the IRCT that produced a simple questionnaire for those working in asylum reception, such as social workers, border guards, immigration agents, or administrative staff, for example. The ten questions constitute a simple, practical and quick tool to ‘flag’ incoming asylum-seekers and refugees as possible victims of torture and trauma, thereby ensuring them early access to treatment and rehabilitation.

This next step with PROTECT-ABLE is to put this tool in place. The project, which officially began on 1 September, will train staff through the its ten partners — centres in The United Kingdom, Poland, Sweden, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria — in using the questionnaire tool. Over the next 18 months, partners will also lobby authorities at both the national and European level to put the questionnaire tool in place in their national asylum systems.

Implementing and early detection system can help to ensure that torture survivors do not languish in immigration detention without care or treatment. The goal is simply to ensure that torture survivors get the rehabilitation and treatment they have a right to.

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Friends of IRCT gather to bid farewell and welcome to leadership

While also a fond farewell to Brita Sydhoff, Friday’s reception was also a warm welcome to new Secretary-General Joost Martens

Brita Sydhoff, former Secretary-General of IRCT, bade a warm and thankful farewell to the more than 100 guests Friday night at a reception in her honour. The reception was also to warmly welcome IRCT’s new Secretary-General Joost Martens.

More than a hundred guests joined the staff of IRCT, including staff from member centre Rehabilitation and Research Centre for Torture Victims, members of the IRCT Executive Committee from all over the world, ambassadors and other diplomatic staff based in Copenhagen, and friends of the organisation.

“I wish to truly thank all of you, through thick and thin times we’ve had at the IRCT for your hard work and dedication to this cause – the rehabilitation of torture victims worldwide,” Brita said in her farewell speech. Among her achievements, she recounted she was particularly proud of the steadfastly democratic governing structures that lead the IRCT today. The Executive Committee, who are elected every three years by the 144 members of the IRCT, were in attendance at Friday’s festivities as they had just completed a two-day meeting in Copenhagen.

The members of the Executive Committee, who represent rehabilitation centres on six continents, met with new Secretary-General Joost Martens in a two-day meeting in Copenhagen prior to the reception. From left, Ms Karen Hanscom, North America; Ms Loreine dela Cruz, Asia; Ms Clarisse Delorme, Independent Expert; Ms Suzanne Jabbour, MENA; Mr Jorge Aroche, Pacific – Vice-President; Ms Simona Ruy-Perez, Latin America & Caribbean; Mr Joost Martens, Secretary-General; Ms Lilla Hardi, Europe; and Mr Mohamud Nurein Said, Sub-Saharan-Africa – President.

Click through our slideshow for photos of IRCT staff and supporters of the organisation during the reception on Friday.

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News update: Justice for crimes of torture

Of course, the nature of anti-torture work is often a sea of depressing news. However, in this news update, we would like to highlight that sometimes things can change for the better. Impunity can subside, torture may relent, and there can at times be a mild ‘sea-change’, so to speak.

On Wednesday, a US judge issued a permanent injunction against key provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would give powers to the US military to indefinitely detain a US citizen. One of the plaintiffs in the case, wrote in the Guardian:

Sometimes, it is worth believing in impossible things – like standing up to the United States government, and daring to believe you can win. Sometimes, we do. And because we did, for now at least, and for most of us, due process still stands.

Although the federal government has appealed the injunction, for now due process rights for US citizens remain.

From Tajikistan, we welcome the verdict that a police inspector has been found guilty and sentenced to seven years for torturing a 17-year-old boy. This is the first time that the domestic law criminalising torture has been used in a case since it was put in place in March of this year. Domestic laws criminalising torture are part of the obligations that states have after ratifying the UN Convention Against Torture, which Tajikistan did in 1995.

Hearings have started in a case against two police officers in Kazan, Russia on charges of torturing a man to death. The high-profile case has also resulted in the dismissal of the region’s interior minister. We hope that the victim’s family sees justice for this horrific crime.

In the Philippines, a court has also turned down an appeal from a Manila policeman who has been accused of torturing a man in detention.

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Bahrain jailing human rights defenders

Nabeel Rajab, co-founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (at right), and Zainab Al-Khawaja (at left), a Bahrain human rights activist. Photos by Conor McCabe; available via Flickr through Creative Commons License.

The repression against protesters and human rights defenders in the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain has been ongoing during the last 18 months. Beginning with the violent crackdown during the Arab Spring protests, the Bahraini state has been arresting, torturing and detaining human rights defenders, like Abduhadi Al-Khawaja.

Recent reports have emerged from the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) that the judicial harassment of human rights defenders Zainab Al-Khawaja and Nabeel Rajab has been stepped up to detain them on trumped-up charges for their legitimate protests activities against the state. In addition to supporting the work of human rights defenders, we at the IRCT are concerned for their safety; Bahrain has long established a pattern of torturing detainees, and we fear for the safety of Ms Al-Khawaja and Mr Rajab in light of their continued detention.

In our statement, we are echoing the call from BCHR for the Bahrain government to:

1. Immediately release detained human rights defenders Nabeel Rajab and Zainab Al-Khawaja and drop all charges against them, as it is believed that these measures have been taken against them solely due to their legitimate and peaceful work in the defense of human rights, and the exercise of freedom to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression in accordance to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights;

2. Immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience and activists including leading human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja;

3. Immediately put an end to the practice of torture and the ill-treatment of prisoners in Bahrain and bring those responsible to justice;

4. Guarantee in all circumstances that all human rights defenders in Bahrain are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals, and free of all restrictions including judicial harassment.

We also reiterate our call to the international community to put real pressure on the government of Bahrain to stop the ill-treatment of human rights defenders and to to release them immediately as it is believed that they have been targeted solely for their legitimate human rights activities.

Please circulate this statement through your social networks – Facebook, Twitter – to draw attention to the plight of these detained human rights defenders.

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Health professionals as human rights advocates

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a week-long series from Lars Døssing Rosenmeier, who is writing from the Middle East – North Africa (MENA) Regional Seminar in Amman, Jordan. The seminar is part of the European Commission-supported project, Non-State Actors, which you can read more about here. Read here for the first post.

The very initial moments of treating a torture survivor – the first interviews and basic data questions – can have greater importance than one expects.

The family in the short video had been arrested and tortured by Israeli armed forces after two members of their family were killed in a demonstration against the seizure of their land. The two phases shown in the film – the initial stages of intervention, and after they had received primary rehabilitation services – testify to the power of rehabilitation.

The family shown had received care at the Treatment and Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture (TRC), based in the Occupied Palestinian Territory of the West Bank.

The video was one presented by TRC at the IRCT Middle East-North Africa (MENA) Regional Seminar, which they are currently co-hosting with the IRCT Secretariat in Amman, Jordan this week. The meeting has brought together 20 health and human rights professionals from across this region to discuss some fundamental practices of their respective rehabilitation clinics.

Some of the participants during a workshop at the MENA Seminar this week.

Intake proceedings and documentation were the focus of the regional seminar this week: where health professionals gathered together to learn their respective procedures and processes to work towards determining a standardised form for data sharing. While collecting data and information, such as name, gender, birth date, and employment status, may seem like a simple function of a rehabilitation clinic, identifying the information that is already collected and can therefore most easily be shared across all treatment centres within the MENA region is very important for the fight against torture.

As Wisam Sehweil of TRC said, referring to the set of simple data that can now be shared; “I have been in many trainings, but this is the first time that a consensus is sought and reached in this way”.

It’s important because doctors, nurses, psychiatrists and psycho-social counsellors are also human rights advocates when working in torture rehabilitation. They are fighting for the right to health and rehabilitation for the torture survivors they meet with every week. International human rights treaties, such as the UN Convention Against Torture, the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, oblige states to provide protection from torture and proper rehabilitation for torture victims.

So what can health professionals do? In addition to treating and rehabilitating torture survivors, health professionals have the knowledge and experience on the ground to advocate for states to live up to these obligations. That’s why creating standardised procedures, such as basic data collection, is important in the fight against torture: health professionals, as human rights advocates, can bring this information to the United Nations and inform the UN monitors about the unmet needs of torture survivors in their country.

So this week in Jordan, 20 participants, from 10 different torture rehabilitation centres in 7 countries, are addressing these questions and in the processing reframing the way we think of health care professionals. Lest we forget: doctors, psychologists and counsellors are among those on the forefront of the fight against torture.

Lars assists the membership team, focusing on management of the NSA project. The NSA project is supported by the European Commission.

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Staff run to highlight IRCT at Copenhagen relay race

We may not be the biggest fans of Spandex, but the IRCT staff can certainly get out and run.

Ten staff members (and many supporters) from the IRCT’s Secretariat office participated at the annual Copenhagen DHL Relay Race last week, joining more than 125,000 other runners in the city’s Fælledpark.

Each day, 5,000 teams of five people donned their running shorts and company shirt to race five kilometres through the park. Two teams from IRCT joined this year, racing against teams from the Royal Danish Post Office and Telia Mobile. Both groups from IRCT managed to finish in less than 2 hours 40 minutes!

Check out photos below of our teams:

The two teams of runners from the IRCT. From left to right, Fabio, Lars, Dan, Tessa, Joost, Gitte, Annette and Inge. Not pictured are Signe and Jamal, who had already started the relay race.

Administrative Assistant Gitte, at left, and Head of Administration and Finance Annette watch the first runners start.

Miriam, Head of Legal and Advocacy, was out to support the runners, with Dan, a Health Team Intern, who ran the final leg of 5 km.

Fabio, Communications Officer, waits to run, the second leg for his team.

Lovely sunset over Fælledparken during the final few kilometers.

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Those who treat torture survivors: bringing together rehabilitation professionals

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a week-long series from Lars Døssing Rosenmeier, who is writing from the Middle East – North Africa (MENA) Regional Seminar in Amman, Jordan. The seminar is part of the European Commission-supported project, Non-State Actors, which you can read more about here.

Dr Fatima Hajji was one of 48 Bahraini doctors who were arrested and tortured during the Arab Spring uprising in spring of 2011. Now wanting to work to help other victims of torture, Dr Hajji is, together with the rest of the newly founded BRAVO organisation, working to establish a rehabilitation centre for torture victims in Bahrain.

Dr Haji, who has only recently had her travel ban lifted, joined more than a dozen other professionals this week at the Middle East – North Africa (MENA) Regional Seminar in Amman, Jordan. The seminar, hosted by IRCT together with project partner Treatment and Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture (TRC), brings together 19 professionals from 9 centres in 7 MENA countries.

Dr Joost den Otter, IRCT’s Clinical Director and Head of Health Team, speaks during the seminar Sunday in Amman, Jordan. The seminar brings together 19 professions from 9 rehabilitation centres in 7 countries.

Most of the MENA centres are strongly involved in the prevention of torture. Thus, in addition to focusing on how rehabilitation centres receive torture survivors and collect and use data on their cases, the seminar will cover the role of the medical professional and the rehabilitation centres as human rights advocates. Moreover, the arrest and torture of at least 48 doctors in Bahrain in the early spring of 2011 has highlighted the need for better protection of medical professionals in many countries.

Wissam Sehweil of the Treatment and Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture, Occupied Palestine, presents the centre’s procedures for receiving survivors of torture.

During Sunday afternoon, four of the participating centres presented their specific intake procedures and the data collected during this procedure. The presentations and in-depth discussions will continue today and throughout the week.

“The timing of the workshop is perfect for BRAVO, because we just started structuring torture rehabilitation,” Dr Haji said. “This workshop helps us in getting it right from the beginning — using the best available tools for assessment and monitoring torture victims’ needs and standardised formats for better communication with international rehabilitation bodies rather than doing it later, which would be more difficult to redo it.”

Lars assists the membership team, focusing on management of the NSA project. The NSA project is supported by the European Commission.

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