Archive for January, 2013
Looking at the front page at the website of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, two news items on the top feature the same word – Turkey.
On Friday of last week, a Turkish court convicted Pınar Selek, a sociologist and writer, on charges arising from an explosion at a market in Istanbul in 1998. Yes, 1998. Fifteen years ago, Turkish authorities arrested the researcher, who was conducting ongoing interviews with the Kurdish minority, tortured her to find out the names of those she had interviewed, and charged her for the explosion at the market. For 15 years, authorities have been trying to convict Selek. During that time she has been acquitted three times, but the judicial harassment continued.
Selek’s work focused on the Kurdish minority and women. And after the explosion, prosecutors claimed that Selek had something to do with a terrorist organisation that planted a bomb. But experts even disagreed if there was a bomb in the first place – many experts said it was instead a gas leak that caused the explosion. Witnesses for the prosecution withdrew testimony as well, claiming that it had been coerced under torture. The through the IRCT project on forensic evidence, experts corroborated that Selek had in fact been tortured in detention.
Today, Selek remains in Strasbourg, France, but a visit to her home country could result in an arrest and life imprisonment. The IRCT is calling for the charges to be dismissed and the harassment to end.
But use of Turkey’s extremely broad and easily abused anti-terrorism legislation, these arrests are not uncommon. Just earlier this month, police arrested 15 lawyers, all of whom belong to Progressive Lawyers Association (Cagdas Hukukçular Dernegi – ÇHD) – an extremely important non-profit organisation that provides legal assistance for victims of human rights violations, including torture.
One such case of theirs was on behalf of Engin Çeber, a human rights activist that was also arrested and tortured in detention in 2008. He died from his injuries. Only after independent forensic evidence confirmed that he had been tortured did Turkish authorities investigate the case. Three prison officials were sentenced to life; nine others were convicted and given prison terms ranging from 5 months to 12 1/2 years.
These two cases point to a long-term continuous abuse of the anti-terrorism legislation to target human rights defenders and critics of the Turkish state. In just October of law year, the UN Human Rights Committee criticized Turkey on this issue, writing in their final report that:
The Committee is concerned that several provisions of the 1991 Anti-Terrorism Law (Law 3713) are incompatible with the Covenant rights. The Committee is particularly concerned at: (a) the vagueness of the definition of a terrorist act; (b) the far-reaching restrictions imposed on the right to due process; (c) the high number of cases in which human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists and even children are charged under the Anti-Terrorism Law for the free expression of their opinions and ideas, in particular in the context of non-violent discussions of the Kurdish issue. (arts. 2, 14 and 19) [DOC]
The IRCT and our partners are concerned for the safety of the lawyers that remain in custody. But further to that, what does this mean for human rights defenders in Turkey and their continuous fight against torture and other human rights violations?
Editor’s Note: This is a blog post from IRCT Secretary-General Joost Martens
The turning of the year has provided many of us with an opportunity for reflection and taking-stock. For me, it’s no different: looking back at my first months in the job, since taking on the role of Secretary-General, and looking ahead at the many challenges and opportunities that we have in front of us.
As I have said before, the IRCT exists because of its members, and in recent months, I’ve been getting to know our members better, through the Governance Council meetings in the autumn, through my participation in regional seminars and through ad hoc contacts. And I’ve been overwhelmed by the dedication and commitment of the people that make up this movement.
An important part of the challenges ahead of us are related to the incidence of torture. This can be in the form of increased sexual violence and torture against women and girls in many parts of the world; it can take the form of a rise of human rights abuses perpetrated not just by governments, but related to private business interests; or it can be linked to the economic austerity that is impacting upon the refugee and migrant populations in Europe, North America and Australasia, where a growing tide of anti-immigrant rhetoric is heaping further harm on those who need protection most.
But there is another type of challenge of great concern, which has to do with the working of the centres and the rehabilitation that can be provided: this has to do in part with threats to IRCT member centres’ staff in different parts of the world, because the stigmatization of human rights defenders as subversive – care for caregivers is an important and urgent need in that respect. What is most concerning, however, is the mere fact that many of the rehabilitation centres may face forced closure because of lack of financial resources, putting at risk the presence of sustained and professional torture rehabilitation facilities.
In that context, it is essential that there is global acknowledgement and recognition of the right to rehabilitation. Therefore, an important area of activity of the Secretariat is on advocating and campaigning for realising this Right to Rehabilitation, as envisaged under Article 14 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture. Realising this right is a key advocacy aim for the IRCT in 2013. With this right accepted as part of the Human Rights Framework of the UN, it gives the IRCT members an instrument to advocate for more resources to be made available for the rehabilitation of torture survivors.
The IRCT starts 2013 in a stronger position that we’ve been in for a while. Our funding base is stronger than in recent years, which is testament to the hard work put in by my colleagues at the Secretariat. We look forward to increasing our engagement with the membership through the hiring of new staff, to be based not at the Secretariat’s headquarters here in Copenhagen, but in the regions. This will allow us to be in closer contact with our member centres and work towards building and strengthening our capacities. As 2013 progresses, we will focus on making sure that the Secretariat as a whole is “fit for purpose”.
Being fit for purpose is key because the challenges ahead are many. But, from what I’ve seen so far, I know that as a movement we are ready to rise to the challenges; ensuring rehabilitation and access to justice for survivors of torture, and work towards the prevention of torture.
When the film “Zero Dark Thirty” started appearing dozens of times on our newsfeed each morning, at first I thought I wouldn’t have to address it. After all, we have written more than a handful of blogs on the U.S. torture programme, how torture in interrogations has been proven to be completely ineffective, and regardless is irrefutably illegal, amoral, offensive and prohibited under international law and under all circumstances.
But alas it seems I will have to repeat myself.
The problem with “Zero Dark Thirty” is not that it depicts torture. A film demonstrating the truly horrific act of torture, and what it does to people, the graphic cruelty, is not without worth. The problem with this film is that it presents itself as a realistic account of the search for Osama bin Laden, and that during this hunt, information obtained through torture was instrumental in finding him.
There-in lays the most devious lie. The CIA has repeated again that torture was not useful in obtaining the intelligence information that led to Bin Laden. Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein and Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin also denied this was the case. But there it is in celluloid. Such a depiction simply bolsters the arguments of those who defend the efficacy of the US’s torture programme and the use of torture more generally as an effective measure to extract information and keep people ‘safe from terrorism’, a scenario that has been roundly debunked.
As Glenn Greenwald writes in The Guardian: “it propagandizes the public to favorably view clear war crimes by the US government, based on pure falsehoods.”
The debate over the film, however, is so off-kilter that even in engaging in these arguments, I find myself repeating the same framing of this debate that I find deplorable in the first place.
So let’s rephrase. It doesn’t matter if torture is effective or not. It’s not effective, as numerous parties have stated. But that’s not the point. It’s immoral, inhuman, illegal, and counter to any modern notion of human rights and international law. Torture is prohibited. Period.
In spite of its extremely problematic depictions, “Zero Dark Thirty” is a film. And while I do understand that films become part of a national discourse – or, in the words of Karen Greenberg, “[Zero Dark Thirty] will unfortunately substitute for actual history in the minds of many Americans” – the furor raised by this film should rather be directed at more dubious political decisions of the last few weeks with regard to torture – decisions that may have real, palpable consequences for the continued use of torture and the continued impunity for those who carried out or supported that programme.
Just earlier this month, John Brennan, former director of CIA’s National Counterterrorism Center until fall 2005, was nominated to head the intelligence agency, a move that critics say is highly indicative to the ways in which the crimes of the Bush administration have been institutionalised during Obama’s first term (see also, the National Defense Authorization Act in institutionalising indefinite detention). Brennan was removed from the shortlist of nominees in 2008, largely because he was considered ‘too controversial’ a figure; he has been vocally supportive of some of the worst human rights crimes of the Bush administration, including rendition and torture.
Consider a 2005 interview he gave soon after leaving the CIA. Asked about rendition and why some terrorism suspects are sent to other countries, Brennan responded:
“Well, sometimes that is the case because there could be an outstanding warrant for someone’s arrest in another country or they need to go back to the country of their origin because the local government and service can in fact question them more effectively in that country than in the place where they had been captured.”
His opinion on rendition?
“And I can say without a doubt that it has been very successful as far as producing intelligence that has saved lives.”
What we now know is that his useless euphemisms on ‘effective interrogation’ really meant being tortured in other countries, whether it was Egypt, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, or other CIA ‘black sites’. Many of the countries where detainees were sent were cited by the US’s own State Department for human rights violations and torture – a clear violation of the UN Convention Against Torture, which prohibits countries from sending individuals to a country where there is a clear risk of torture. Just last month, the European Court of Human Rights deemed the treatment of one such detainee, Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen who was mistaken for another person, to be illegal. El-Masri was detained in Macedonia, handed over to CIA officials, who then sent him on an illegal rendition flight to an Afghanistan ‘black site’, where was secretly held and tortured for four months.
But a large point to consider is that we don’t even know the extent of Brennan’s involvement in the torture and rendition programme. US involvement in torture, its extent, and who is responsible remains shadowy and beset by piece-meal information.
The US Senate Intelligence Committee approved last month a 6,000 page ‘torture report’ on the CIA’s detention and interrogation policies. But it has not been made public. It currently remains classified, and considering the Obama administration’s ‘reluctance’ (to put it kindly) to address the crimes of the previous administration and hold anyone accountable, well, I’m not holding my breath.
The furor over ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is not without merit and cause. But it could also be directed to more pressing crimes – the continued impunity and, in Brennan’s case, the institutionalising of these crimes. Instead of boycotting the film’s director Kathryn Bigelow or protesting outside of cinemas, we should hold our policy-makers to account, bring out the full truth on these heinous crimes depicted in the film and ensure that those defending such crimes don’t end up in leadership positions again.
Tessa is a Communications Officer at the IRCT.
Although a global problem, torture takes shape in different ways in different contexts. Tackling it is also a local challenge, with human rights defenders asking, how does torture happen here?
PRAWA, or Prisoners Rehabilitation and Welfare Action, is a Nigerian rehabilitation and advocacy organisation and member of the IRCT. They have developed a methodology and series of programmes to prevent torture from happening in the first place, one that is nearly so obvious and simple.
In Nigeria, torture happens in prisons. It happens when people come in contact with police and prison authorities. It happens through the horrific and inhumane conditions of prisons.
There is a vast problem of crime in Nigeria, says Godwin Ugbor, a psychologist at PRAWA based in their Enugu headquarters. This is mostly related to dire poverty and hunger. While the country itself is rich from oil – one of the largest oil producers in the world – this wealth has not been distributed widely. It’s the 49th most unequal country, meaning any wealth is only held by a few.
“There is just so much hunger,” Godwin says. The result of that poverty and inequality, he explains, is rampant crime.
Furthermore, the high rate of crime in Nigeria means there is increased pressure on police services to function well and arrest perpetrators – but they suffer from the same poverty and lack of proper funding and training as the rest of the country.
“Because they don’t have the skills, they resort to torture,” he says.
So, one of PRAWA’s approaches to preventing torture – keep people out of the judicial system. Although people are sometimes implicated and tortured for crimes they never committed, the best method of prevention is to ensure that the young don’t become involved in criminal activity. Additionally, they work with the police and justice system apparatuses to bring about a human rights ethic to their work. And for those in prison, PRAWA provides psychological rehabilitation during their sentences and through the transition to public life. If most torture occurs in prisons and police lock-ups, then PRAWA rehabilitates prisoners.
Godwin has only been a psychologist for a year and a half, but he’s jumped into this work quickly, almost ‘overwhelmingly’, he says. It’s never-ending work, with prisoners and other clients calling at all hours.
“Your personal life is lost.”
Godwin started working with prisoners during an internship, one of four he had during his studies to become a psychologist.
“The system is so flawed and the conditions in prison so terrible, you develop a great deal of sympathy. It is a large group of people that really need help.”
Terrible may be an understatement. “Say they built a prison for 100, maybe 400 people will be living there. It’s extremely overcrowded. A cell for five, may have 20 people. There are bad sanitary conditions. Not good personnel working there. And really horrible food.”
Godwin says for those living under these conditions – often in long sentences or remaining there for months or years after they should be released due to flawed judicial processes – can develop chronic mental illnesses. Many prisons now have asylum cells for the mentally ill. He gets calls from them sometimes as late as 10pm, desperate for help and someone to talk to.
However, Godwin’s work has taken a turn recently to focus more on prevention – ensuring that the youth of Nigeria don’t get caught up in crime and risk arrest, becoming entangled with the judicial system and thus tortured.
The Illegal Migration Awareness Project (IMAP) trains youth and peer educators on the issues of illegal migration, a particularly relevant issue in Nigeria, Godwin says.
“Many youth want to leave the country and live without violence,” he says. But the impact of illegal migration can bring dire consequences. Many try to migrate across the desert, some dying during the journey. Others steal money, purchasing fake visas and passports and can be caught by officials. Those who make it abroad may have to resort to crime and theft to make ends meet.”
The education to peer leaders includes understanding alternatives to violence – training youth on how to handle certain situations without resorting to violence and aggression. Finally, career guidance programmes on vocational training and entrepreneurship assist youth in earning money, building a career, attending university and supporting themselves rather than turning to crime and theft.
“When I was in university, I would make shirts, shirts like this,” Godwin says while tugging at the fabric of his blue button-down. “That meant I was able to make enough money to support myself and attend school.”
It is methods like PRAWA’s that demonstrate the multi-faceted problem of torture – how problems of poverty increase one’s vulnerability to torture. And stopping torture means tackling it from all sides.
The situation for migrants in Greece is dire. And it’s not just the economic crisis, though that is undoubtedly making it worse.
So says, Ioanna Kotsioni, a migration specialist at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Athens, Greece. Kotsioni visited the IRCT recently to give a presentation on the situation of migrants and specifically migrant health in country.
And the conclusion was grim, to say the least. An estimated 80% of all migrants to Europe come through Greece, according to Frontex data for 2011 [PDF], meaning a majority must face squalid detention conditions and dismal health services upon their initial entry into Europe. But with the deep economic issues plaguing the country, scant attention is being paid to the condition of migrant health and human rights.
“I don’t want to overdramatize the situation,” Kotsioni says, “but it’s going as bad as it could go.”
So what is the migration process into Europe? And along this process, what are the effects for those migrants’ health and mental well-being considering the state of Greece at the moment.
According to MSF, migrants accumulate vulnerability throughout different stages of the migration process, from leaving their home to resettling elsewhere. For example, during the 2010-2011 winter, MSF saw many migrants with severe frostbite, presumably caused during their trek through the mountains in Iran, but acerbated by the frigid conditions in Greece and long periods without medical care. At that time, MSF referred 16 patients with frostbites to the hospital; some had amputations as a result of the frostbite.
After an arduous travel to Greece, whether risking the boat trip to the countries numerous islands or across the border with Turkey, which only recently (2010) was fully de-mined, many migrants and asylum seekers are detained for long periods (according to recent legislation the maximum administrative detention period, both for migrants and asylum seekers, was extended to one year). The practice of detaining migrants has increased in recent years in Europe, Kotsioni reports; this means a majority of migrants coming into Greece are held in deplorable conditions, greatly increasing their vulnerability. The European Court of Human Rights, M.S.S. case v. Belgium and Greece 2011,ruled that the conditions of detention for migrants are often desperately overcrowded and are considered demeaning treatment.
Calling it ‘overcrowded’ is perhaps a far too sanitised term. The Pagani Detention Center, located on the island of Lesvos for migrants who arrived by boat from Turkey, was closed in 2009 following criticisms by MSF and others. In 2008, when MSF visited the centre, they found 200 people staying in a 150-square-meter room; 68 were children younger than 5.
The impact of detention on migrant health is great. MSF estimates that 63% of the diagnoses of the migrants its teams treated in Evros detention facilities between 2010 and 2011 were directly or indirectly linked to the substandard conditions of detention [PDF]. MSF patients between 2009 and 2010 reported many psychological complaints related to detention as well. Nearly 40% of migrants reported anxiety as a result of their detention; other common diagnoses included depression (31%) and post-traumatic stress syndrome (9.5%). Among those diagnosed by MSF, 3.2% reported an attempted suicide or self-harms while in detention [PDF].
These severe mental health concerns arise from the conditions of detention, compounded of course by the previous traumas of refugees from their homeland and the migration process to Europe. But detention alone was the single greatest cause of anxiety and stress; it arises from the desperately squalid conditions, the sense of defeat, hopelessness and perpetual uncertainty, the feeling of injustice, for being treated like a criminal, and shame, Kotsioni reports. And the Ministry of Health provides very little; for example, in the Evros region where there are several detention facilities and several hundred migrants are detained, there was only one psychologist available.
“The police operate the immigration system,” she says. “And they have very limited capacity to do this work. With few exceptions, they have no translators even.”
Occasionally, people are even completely forgotten or lost within the system. Unaccompanied minors — among the vulnerable groups that should be treated with special care, according to the European Council — are at times detained for months. In recent months in police stations in the Aegean Islands which have been receiving migrants and refugees – predominantly from Afghanistan and Syria – men, women, children, elderly were detained in the same tight rooms.
Capacity seems to be the greatest problem, again, fuelled by the financial crisis. The police run the asylum and immigration system because there isn’t a separate government institution to operate it (a recent legislation of 2011 foresees and independent Asylum Service and a First Reception Service however these are not yet operational). As there is no reception system, no one trained to screen for vulnerable people such as torture victims, all migrants captured at the border or detained in random police sweeps are detained.
“It is up to the police’s discretion if they are considered vulnerable,” Kotsioni says, “but they can only see the obvious signs, a fully disabled person or a pregnant woman. But they have no training and no interpreters.”
I think that’s nearly what shocked me the most – no interpreters. No way for the authorities to speak to people during months of detention; no way for authorities to communicate that migrants will, in fact, get out of detention at some point; no way for the migrants to tell authorities or government medical staff if they have an injury or a previous trauma, to tell their story. And there are migrants from dozens of countries – in the last two years, the majority have come from Afghanistan, but also Pakistan, Bangladesh, various countries of Northern Africa, and, in more recent months, from Syria.
Migrant health issues, which are already numerous at the start of one’s journey, get compounded by a thoroughly dysfunctional system. Once they are released from detention, many either make there way to other European countries or apply for asylum within Greece. The wait for an asylum application can take months. In 2008, only .05% of applicants were given asylum. Now that number is 2.5%.
In the waiting time, 300,000-400,000 migrants in Greece have “irregular status”, meaning still no avenues for proper medical care. Kotsioni says that previously, doctors could “find a way” to provide some basic health care to migrants with irregular status; however, now with the dire fiscal challenges, those options have been largely closed off.
To make matters worse, migrants in Greece are often the targets of racist violence, which has greatly increased in the last year of the financial crisis. The Racist Violence Recording Network documented 87 cases of racist violence against refugees and migrants, 83 of which were in public spaces, such as train stations or public squares. A majority of the instances – 48 of the 87 – were believed to involve extremists groups. The fascist, far-right party Golden Dawn garnered 6.7% of the vote in the last election and is believed to have support from “pockets of fascists” within the police.
“There seems to be complete impunity [for these crimes]. That is the word to underline,” Kotsioni says.
While the crisis continues, no EU countries seem to watch to further push Greece and bring up the issue of human rights in the country. But in the meantime, hundreds of thousands of migrants continue across the border and into inhuman conditions in Europe.
Happy New Year! We have just returned from the year-end holiday. But before we look forward to 2013, let’s take a look back at 2012 and the events, successes, tragedies and changes in human rights around the world. This list is of course not exhaustive, so please feel free to add your own suggestions and story links in the comments section.
Click the first image to view in a slideshow.