Archive for category Asia
We hear from IRCT Asia Regional Coordinator Marion Staunton as she visits CORE-H2H in Manipur, India, to learn about the centre’s activities to tackle torture in the region.
On a clear day under cobalt blue skies, along the shores of a murky canal choking with vegetation, we climbed in to small dugout canoe that would take us on a twenty minute journey to the centre of Loktak Lake in the mountainous Manipur State of the north-eastern region of India.
The lake is the largest natural freshwater lake in the region and has an important role in its ecological and economic security. The purpose of our journey was to meet some members of fisher community living on floating huts who are being supported by the Human to Humane Transcultural Centre for Torture and Trauma (H2H) project of the IRCT member the Centre for Organization Research & Education (CORE).
H2H, established in 2009, is the independent health and humanitarian service of the nongovernmental organization CORE which provides direct assistance to survivors of torture within a holistic rehabilitation framework. Support is provided through in-house clinical psychologists, art and expressive therapists, physiotherapists, spiritual and traditional healers. H2H activities are supported by the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture.
CORE was founded in 1987 in the capital Imphal of Manipur State in response to the extensive human rights abuses taking place. Its main focus is on the documentation of such human rights abuses, including torture, and advocacy for indigenous peoples’ rights. Since 2005, CORE has Special Consultative Relationship with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations
In the canoe accompanying me on my journey was one of the founding members of CORE and its current president Dr Laifungbam Roy. Dr Roy, who heads the H2H project, explained how in Manipur people in appearance and culture have more in common with South East Asia than distant New Delhi. Many insurgencies have been fought in this region for autonomy and separation from India, and the Indian government has responded with tough military crackdowns that have resulted in heavy loss to life, property and the development of the state.
In particular, he explained about the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958 (AFSPA), a racially discriminatory “state of emergency” martial law that is in place in Manipur that gives soldiers extraordinary powers and legal immunity from prosecution under India’s criminal justice system. Soldiers are shielded from prosecution by this law as they cannot be prosecuted without explicit permission from the central government, which has never been granted. Unsurprisingly, the law has led to decades of impunity, human rights violations and abuses, such as arbitrary killings, rape, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and enforced disappearances. One particular client group that CORE works with and supports is that of indigenous peoples, the majority population of the province.
When we reached our destination we met with the Loktak Fishing Community and the All Loktak Lake Areas Fishermen’s Union Manipur Secretary on their indigenous phumsangs which are traditional floating huts made of bamboo and thatch situated in the middle of lake. Currently the traditional life style and livelihood of the Loktak Fishing Community is severely threatened due to ‘development’ plans to construct a ring-road and embankment around the lake with the authorities using the old and authoritarian Loktak Lake (Protection) Act of 2006 that criminalises traditional fishing and seeks remove the fishing community from the lake.
Their lives, livelihoods and way of life are in danger and in recent times they have endured arson attack, torture and evictions from their homes by the government with nowhere else for them to go. The community are extremely traumatised and distraught following recent arson attacks on them and their homes. According to H2H and CORE they are under continuous stress not knowing when the authorities will return and attempt to evict them and destroy their homes again.
In recent months H2H has provided counselling support to a number of torture victims from this community. But the community say that their uncertainty of what will happen to them, their children and community causes them continued mental anguish and torture.
This week in the ‘On the Forefront’ series we meet the Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation in Cambodia, a group committed to providing Cambodians with opportunities and resources to care for themselves in the wake of the Cambodian Genocide which still has effects 40 years later.
In June 2013, the Asian Human Rights Commission declared that torture in Cambodia is “systematic” with 141 documented cases of torture in police custody since 2010. With a population of nearly 15 million, perhaps the 141 figure seems low. However this figure is only officially documented cases – unreported instances of torture could be much higher.
And regardless of the numbers, Cambodia is a country still reeling from the terrible effects of the Khmer Rouge regime which, almost exactly 40 years ago, killed at least two-million people through the Cambodian Genocide.
During the four-year rule of Pol Pot (1975-79) torture, starvation, and political executions were commonplace amidst a rule now hailed by prosecutors in the subsequent war crimes trials as “one of the most heinous regimes history has ever known.”
It is in this historical context of torture that the Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation Cambodia (TPO Cambodia) exists, to provide support to those who are unable to care for themselves due to their circumstances.
Established in 1995 as a branch of the Netherlands based NGO “TPO International”, TPO Cambodia was registered as an independent local NGO in 2000 with a vision to allow Cambodian citizens to live with good mental health and a satisfactory quality of life. Their remit is wide and among other medical and psychosocial programmes to benefit anyone in Cambodia, rehabilitating torture survivors is one of their key focus areas.
Dealing with the effects of the Khmer Rouge is a still a priority – it is estimated around 14% of Khmer Rouge survivors, and their descendants, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder today, with even higher rates reported among those testifying in the trials against the regime.
TPO Cambodia estimates that state torture is far more prevalent than official statistics depict, with figures from 20-35% of detainees reported to have been tortured in state prisons. Electric shocks and physical beatings remain the most popular form of torture, and poverty among the victims often leaves them without a legal or rehabilitative route to overcome their torture.
And this is where TPO Cambodia excels. By providing medical health checks and mental health assessments as standard, the experts at TPO Cambodia can quickly and effectively assess the damage of torture. From there the IRCT member offers basic legal counselling, financial aid, and testimonial therapy to allow survivors of torture to restore a sense of control over their lives and to restore their reputations among their communities.
With the help of several NGOs and government ministries, TPO Cambodia tirelessly fights for the rights of torture survivors through an extensive list of programmes and initiatives. And with a fully functional website featuring vast libraries of information discussing current projects and services, and collating all their past research and resources, TPO Cambodia is certainly one of the leading anti-torture organisations in south-east Asia.
Even though the horrifying reflections on the past still take prominence in the country, and even though torture is still not a defined criminal offence in Cambodia, the work of TPO Cambodia offers hope and support to illuminate a positive future.
Despite being the shortest month of our calendar, February has been packed with important news stories, statements and developments across the anti-torture movement.
We summarise some of our most popular blogs, social media content and news releases below. Simply click the relevant links and pictures to read the full stories.
Ever wondered what can be achieved through rehabilitation? Ever wanted to know exactly what can be done to help victims of torture overcome their past? Or have you simply questioned how many centres across the globe offer torture rehabilitation services?
This month we collected the top ten questions asked by our readers about anti-torture work and answered them with links to our work. Just click the picture or this link to read more.
Another popular story this month came from the IRCT whose President, Suzanne Jabbour, has been awarded the prestigious North-South Prize from the Council of Europe in recognition of her lifelong commitment to preventing torture.
The award, which will be presented this Spring in Lisbon, Portugal, has a long list of famous previous winners including Kofi Annan and Bob Geldof.
Suzanne is overjoyed with her victory and we want to thank everyone who joined us in congratulating Suzanne on this award. Read the full story here.
A prison guard takes a detainee from his or her cell, escorts them to a roulette-style wheel listing different methods of torture, and spins the wheel to determine just how much pain should be inflicted on the prisoner.
This ‘Wheel of Torture’, which uses torture as a game, came to light in the world media this month following an inspection of prisons in the Philippines and shocked human rights groups worldwide.
The practice not only showed us how torture is still being reinvented and adapted in sadistic ways, but also showed just how little is being done in the Philippines to stop torture. You can read our full blog on this, and the statement from human rights defenders in the country, by clicking this link.
A story we shared on Facebook this month garnered much attention – the vivid, hard-hitting documentary ‘The Act of Killing’ achieved must deserved recognition from the British Academy of Film, Television and Arts (BAFTA) this month, receiving the award for Best Documentary at the latest awards ceremony.
Click our status below to watch an interview with the filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer following the award.
We caught up with IRCT member the Kirkuk Center for Torture Victims in Iraq this month to see what they are doing to help survivors of torture in the region.
The newest member of the IRCT movement, the Kirkuk Centre have extensive links across the north of the country to aid victims of torture from all backgrounds, from those affected by the war in Iraq, to the recent influx of Syrian refugees in the region.
It comes as part of our ‘On the Forefront’ series, which you can see all the entries for by clicking this link.
Incredible news from Tunisia this month, who passed a new constitution promoting equal rights for women, freedom of religious expression, and freedom from torture – all ratified just three years after revolution.
We joined world leaders in congratulating Tunisia on this move which will hopefully push other contries to follow the lead.
However in Bahrain, which also experienced uprisings against the government three years ago, the situation of ill-treatment of protestors and limits to freedom of expression has not changed.
Protests continue on a daily basis, and the three-year anniversary since the beginning of the protests was tragically marked itself by further protests and excessive crackdowns from the authorities.
Bahrain needs to change now. It simply cannot wait any longer. Read the full story by clicking the picture or clicking this link.
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The game of the ‘Wheel of Torture’ is simple: a prison guard takes a detainee from his or her cell, escorts them to a roulette-style wheel listing different methods of torture, and spins the wheel to determine just how much pain should be inflicted on the prisoner.
It sounds like a macabre gameshow in a dark future where “30 seconds of hanging” and ”20 seconds of beatings” are used for entertainment. But as recent news has shown, this game is a reality – and it may not be an isolated incident, one anti-torture union claims.
Following reports of the torture wheel’ earlier this week, the United Against Torture Coalition (UATC) in the Philippines is concerned that while the torture wheel is an extreme example of torture, it exists in a context where there is room for further practices like this to exist.
“The existence of secret detention facility indicates the government’s reluctance to ensure full implementation of the Anti-Torture Law [which gives room for] routine and widespread use of torture and ill-treatment of suspects in police custody,” the statement reads.
The coalition – a union of over 30 human rights groups including IRCT members Balay Rehabilitation Center and the Medical Action Group (MAG) – believe that while the 2009 Anti-Torture law is in place in the Philippines, it is having minimal impact on the prevention of torture.
“Four years since the law took effect, the number of cases brought to court against perpetrators remains a drop in the bucket,” the statement continues. “The government has overlooked zero-tolerance of torture and full implementation of the Anti-Torture Law, and has further set the stage of existing culture of torture impunity in the Philippines.”
The ‘wheel of torture’ discovery inside the Philippine National Police Laguna Provincial Intelligence in Biñan, Laguna province, has seen 44 detainees complain to the prison authorities. However, unofficially, the number of victims of this cruel practice could be much higher.
The officers involved in the case will be dismissed, but this is not enough to redress the victims, or to stop a similar situation of torture developing in the future.
There needs to be full investigations into this incident which sees offending officers disciplined for their actions, to ensure justice for the victims. There needs to be routes to rehabilitation for the victims also so, no matter what their experience, they can overcome their experience of torture. And there needs to be comprehensive reviews of the current state of policing in the Philippines, particularly in detention facilities, to prevent this torture happening.
It is an argument echoed by through the statement from the human rights defenders: “There needs to be more diligent implementation of the Anti-Torture Law. Currently the policy of “zero tolerance” is just to draw away the attention of the public and international community of the government’s failure to eliminate torture in the country.”
Through more than 140 rehabilitation centres across the globe, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) is the largest international network against torture, providing rehabilitation, justice and hope to victims of torture all over the world.
Although under the same umbrella, each of these organisations is unique and operates in a variety of contexts. There are centres working around the clock to deal with humanitarian crises – such as Restart in Lebanon, or the Institute for Family Health in Jordan, which are currently struggling to respond to the challenging influx of Syrian refugees, many of them victims of torture, and groups working with the victims of long past dictatorships, such as those of Latin America in in 1970s.
There are also centres focused on healing entire communities through group therapy and counselling in places where armed conflict created deep societal wounds, and centres who are working with victims of terrible, and often covered-up, state torture, in countries usually assumed democratic and free from torture.
The range of focus areas is vast and, to counter this, so are the different methods of rehabilitation: there are traditional methods of rehabilitation, from psychotherapy and counselling, to group projects focused on rebuilding a community; there are innovative programmes such as yoga sessions which offer physical solutions to long-term pain; storytelling classes and artistic events across centres allow survivors of torture to express their pain in a personal and enlightening way; and projects such as the natural growth project, run by Freedom From Torture, which allow survivors of torture to find their place in the world by reconnecting them with nature and society.
Despite the differences, these organisations share an aim: to create a world without torture.
Over the coming weeks we will be focusing on particular torture rehabilitation centres from across the globe, giving an insight into how they operate and the work they complete on a daily basis.
Every week we shall turn our attention to a different centre and showcase how the centres and programmes work within varying national and local contexts, with different target groups, and use a range of methods to address the effects of torture on individuals, families and communities.
Torture has far-reaching consequences. Rehabilitation too has a far-reaching impact, one which can assist a person, a family, a community, and even a region, in moving on from their past and into a pain-free life once more.
Join us from next week as we go behind-the-scenes of the centres.
A Buddhist nun is beaten for her belief in securing Tibetan human rights. A 20-year-old soldier is captured and tortured for supporting the wrong side of a war in eastern Europe.
Two different locations, two different voices, but both linked by the experience of torture.
As part of a thematic issue on torture, its effects, and the rehabilitative services on offer around the globe, Al Jazeera digital worked with the IRCT and other human rights defenders to bring to light the prevalence of torture in the world today.
The issue – entitled ‘The Colony’ for its main feature on a secret torture chamber run under Chile’s Pinochet regime – included stories from survivors of torture, a feature on the history of torture, and included a study analyzing the hunt for Nazi war criminals responsible for torture and death.
As part of this torture-themed issue, the iPad magazine featured two stories from survivors of torture who have both received treatment from IRCT members.
Former nun Damchoe was arrested for peacefully protesting against Chinese government crackdowns on the rights of Tibetan citizens. In the summer of 1995, Damchoe joined thousands of others calling for recognition of human rights in Tibet in the nation’s capital, Lhasa.
She was caught by Chinese police, sentenced to six-years in detention, and was forced to accept her beliefs were wrong through regular beatings and ‘re-education’. Now 34 years old, Damchoe utilized the help of IRCT member Tibetan Torture Survivors Program (TTSP) and, today, feels rehabilitated enough to share her story (read her full story on the IRCT website).
The second story focuses on ‘AK’, who was only 20 years old when he was captured and tortured for his part in supporting the side of Armenia during the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1994. Held in detention for over one year, AK was subject to beatings, threats of death, and humiliating rituals which involved eating raw eggshells. (Read his story on the IRCT website.)
AK – not his real name – has now moved on from his torture, but it took years of therapy from IRCT member FAVL to get him to a point where he felt like the past was finished with.
“I am such a proud father now,” said AK. “My eldest daughter is fascinated with language she is such a smart young girl who I am sure will be a linguist of some description. My youngest daughter is really into dancing and wants to be a famous dancer when she grows up. Both of them are full of such energy and excitement. It makes me glad I survived my experience.”
The issues covered in the magazine are pertinent in the world today but too often unknown by most. Thanks to the work of Al Jazeera and, of course, torture rehabilitation centres like FAVL and TTSP, , the voices of torture victims can reach the biggest audiences possible. Only that way we can fight for a world without torture.
The right to rehabilitation was adopted by the IRCT as its message for the 2013 International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, 26 June. IRCT member centres throughout the world, including Asia, have committed themselves to making this right a reality, to have the right realized on the ground. But what is the reality in Asia, and, in particular, what is the situation in India and how can we move forward?
These were some of the questions the regional meeting sought to address. The theme of this year’s IRCT Asian Regional Meeting held in Kolkata, India was the right to rehabilitation – the ground reality in Asia. Furthermore, the regional meeting was an opportunity for rehabilitation centres to share updates on the implementation of the right to rehabilitation in practical terms in their respective countries. It was co-hosted by the Centre for the Care of Torture Victims (CCTV) of India, which works in Kolkata and West Bengal.
From the nine countries in Asia, in which there are almost 18 IRCT member centres, India is the only country that has not yet acceded to or ratified the UN Convention against Torture (UNCAT), although it was signatory to the convention almost 15 years ago. Indeed India is the only democracy of South Asia that not yet signed up to UNCAT.
General Comment No. 3, published by the Committee Against Torture at the end of 2012, clarified points of Article 14 of the UNCAT: rehabilitation should be holistic, States have a financial obligation regardless of resources available, rehabilitation must be accessible at the soonest possible point after torture, and that torture victims have a right to choose their provider, be it nongovernmental organisations or the State providing services.
Providing holistic rehabilitation to survivors of torture can help heal the effects of torture and also help towards re-establishing damaged communities. The aim of rehabilitation is to empower the torture survivor to resume as full a life as possible within their families and their communities. However, while international law grants all torture victims a right to rehabilitation, this is not a reality in many countries through the world, including those in Asia.
If India has not ratified the UNCAT, then how do advocates push for the realisation of the right to rehabilitation without this particularly back of an international treaty? Dr Laifungbam Roy, President of the Centre for Organisation Research & Education and Director of Human to Humane Transcultural Centre for Torture & Trauma working in Manipur, provided some analysis of his thoughts during the key-note address at the regional meeting. He started by sharing with the audience some interesting views he had read in a paper presented by Emily Reilly at the Ninth Conference of the European Network of Rehabilitation Centres for Survivors of Torture (2010) that considered how various international laws (other than UNCAT) may ensure that survivors of torture can access specialist rehabilitation services/support they might require.
For example, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) was cited as a possibly more effective legal basis for ensuring the right to rehabilitation for torture survivors than UNCAT. The reason given was that CRPD recognises the right to rehabilitation as an independent human right, rather than a part of more general measures of reparation or an aspect of the right to health. In addition, the address went on to elucidate that the right to rehabilitation in CRPD applies to all survivors of torture who can be categorized as persons with certain kinds of disabilities, without exception, unlike the right to rehabilitation in the Convention against Torture, which can be enforced only against a State that caused, consented to or acquiesced in the survivors’s suffering.
Looking at and learning from other existing legal instruments and frameworks is important given, as Dr Roy pointed out, that for many different reasons it is only a very small number of torture survivors who can in reality achieve their right to rehabilitation by legal means today. In summary, the recommendation from the first half of the keynote address was that the right to rehabilitation should not be interpreted solely within the framework of victims of torture only, but rather within a broader perspective of rehabilitation rights for many types of suffering and damage inflicted on individual person (s) or groups that includes victims of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment.
So what steps do advocates take in a different context – one where the UNCAT has been ratified, yet torture victims still do not have access to rehabilitation?
Though all of the other countries participated in the meeting have either signed up to or acceded to UNCAT, they also faced certain challenges. A representative from Indonesia stated that the government does not give them permission to conduct programmes in prison. Therefore, it’s very difficult to sensitize and raise awareness amongst police officers and others about the right to rehabilitation. Also the support needed from government officials is not forthcoming.
During the second day of the regional meeting, representatives from two member centres in the Philippines made a presentation on “Realizing the right to rehabilitation in the Philippines: ground realities”. In summary, they stated that in the Philippines what rehabilitation means is generally known, per se. But torture rehabilitation is a new idea for most. They went on to state that it’s difficult to convince the government that torture survivors need rehabilitation.
They also highlighted some dilemmas they encounter, such as the fact that torture survivors are both in the community and in the prison system, therefore requiring a different work approach from support organisations. Also given torture rehabilitation should be multidisciplinary and coordinated, they asked who would take the lead? Is it national or local rehabilitation? In the final part of the presentation they proposed a new avenue for centres/countries to explore, which was to maximize the Convention on the Right to Persons with Disability as a pathway for torture survivors to claim their right to rehabilitation, as mentioned in the keynote address on the first day.
What the examples from the Asia regional meeting demonstrate is the need to deeply consider the country contexts in unearthing best approaches to ensuring victims have access to holistic and appropriate rehabilitation.
By Marion Staunton, Regional Coordinator for Asia
 Pakistan, Indonesia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, Bangladesh, India
The day saw an unprecedented number of organisations around the world come together to mark the day, to stand in solidarity with survivors of torture and to remind the world that rehabilitation for torture survivors not only works, it is a right to which they are entitled.
As Joost Martens, IRCT Secretary-General says in his foreword to the report,
Each year, on 26 June, we pause to commemorate and honour the victims of torture, both historic and present. The day has been marked since 1988, which was the first anniversary of the United Nations Convention Against Torture, signed on 26 June 1987.
Yet today, despite its absolute prohibition, torture continues to be a global phenomenon: both physical and psychological torture is prevalent in over half the world’s countries. This is a disgrace in the twenty-first century.
Its victims are men, women – often targeted by rape and other sexual torture, and also, children. Torture victims are disproportionately from marginalised groups, in particular the poor, but also minority groups, such as ethnic, religious and sexual minorities.
The day gives us a time to pause and remember those who have suffered, and stand with those who continue to suffer, for, the effects of torture continue long after the actual act has happened.
These are some of the photos we got from 26 June events around the world:
How IRCT Pakistan member is confronting the country’s problems
Upon meeting Khalida Salimi, she almost immediately thanked me for being among the ‘young people’ entering into the field of anti-torture work.
“We need more young people to eventually take over for us,” she explains. Salimi views the anti-torture movement as just that – a movement of human rights defenders worldwide, where new, young people must take up the cause and move forward the great strides the elder generation has started.
Salimi herself started working in this field around 20 years ago. She founded the Pakistani centre SACH Struggle for Change in 1994 as part of the growing movement for human rights in her country. She is a trained sociologist, which explains her commitment to a multi-disciplinary approach to the rehabilitation of torture survivors in a field largely dominated by doctors and lawyers. A multi-faceted view, she says, is highly necessary when working in a country beset by large-scale and ongoing poverty, armed conflict while acting as a recipient of a massive population of Afghan refugees from the long history of conflict in the neighbouring country.
Among those various views on how to tackle the problem of torture, Salimi has dedicated herself to continued engagement with all levels of both civil society and government. “A holistic approach,” she explains, “means we need to address and reach the police, the judiciary, the prison systems and then of course the medical professionals and lawyers.”
Reaching the police in particular has been a long—term process, one most recently partially supported by the Non-State Actors (NSA) project from the IRCT, of which SACH is a member. Initially, SACH had to reach out to the police authorities to offer them training on sensitisation of human rights and the law. Now, she reports, the relevant government authorities are reaching out to SACH and requesting further training from the NGO.
“They (police authorities) have moved from denial to acceptance that torture exists and it is a problem.”
The project has assisted Salimi’s organisation in producing manuals for police training to continue the ongoing process of ingraining a culture of human rights. “At the very least, we should ensure a baseline – that the police understand that there is a right to life, a right to dignity.” Now, several police stations in Islamabad have posters with the definition of torture, translated into Urdu, hanging on their walls, thanks to the work of SACH. And in February of this year, the organisation held a training session for nearly 50 prison staff from 8 prisons in the Faisalabad region on the definition of torture, the effects of torture and on improved prison management techniques.
And this is indeed a long and ongoing process, she emphasises, especially in a country that has fundamental challenges in its capacity to address several problems. Take the UN Convention Against Torture (UNCAT), for example. SACH was fundamental in convincing the Pakistani government to sign and ratify the treaty, a process that took many years. Part of that challenge, Salimi says, was convincing the relevant government authorities that Pakistan could indeed comply with the Convention.
The UNCAT, among the fundamental international treaties that prohibits the use of torture, obligates the states that have ratified it to report on certain requirements. Has that country criminalised torture in their domestic laws? Have they neglected to investigate claims of torture? Has the country rendered individuals to a third country where they could have been tortured? The monitoring of the UNCAT obligations requires that countries report on these issues regularly.
The government authorities in Pakistan, she says, attributed their reluctance to sign and ratify the UNCAT because they worried about having the ability to respond to these reporting requirements. But they did it in the end: on 23 June 2010, Pakistan ratified the treaty. One year later to the day, SACH, in coordination with several other civil society organisations, held a workshop with several government ministers to facilitate their reporting to the United Nations on the Convention.
However, SACH’s engagement isn’t limited to the government and preventing torture, but also working with the victims of torture around the country. One aspect of holistic rehabilitation to which they are committed is engagement with torture victims and their families through livelihood training.
“We don’t want to simply give people fish; we need to teach them to fish.”
Many of the survivors they work with have been given a small subsistence allowance through the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Through technical and financial cooperation with the IRCT, they have worked with dozens of survivors to improve their skills to create viable small enterprises.
“These are small-scale enterprises, such as vegetable carts in the markets. But we meet with the survivors and analyse their skills. Then we provide a basic adult education, such as understanding the finances of pricing items.”
Overall, it is the potential for the global movement that most excites Salimi. Through the NSA project the IRCT is facilitating capacity development for centres through exchanges and sharing knowledge with other centres around the world.
The torturers can always come up with new ways to torture people, she says, so the networks of torture rehabilitation centres around the world can help the caregivers make sure they stay ahead.
“The perpetrators are powerful, while the care providers may not have the resources, power and time. But by building our networks and becoming connected, the caregivers are united against torture.”
Hanging on the wall in Steen Holger Hansen’s office is a hunk of twisted metal.
“It’s part of a German aeroplane shot down by the Americans during World War Two,” he notes. “It was found in Southern Denmark just ten years ago, although it crashed more than 60 years ago. I wrote the death certificate for the German pilot, and he was finally buried properly.”
Dr Hansen’s office is lined with similar objects; objects that, for him, tell stories. As a forensic pathologist at the University of Copenhagen, he is in some ways a story-teller, and a historian. His mission to Cambodia last year was of particular historical significance: he had to find evidence of torture, evidence that victims had been brutalised by state authorities, from more than 30 years ago, during the Khmer Rouge era.
Dr Hansen took part in the forensic investigation mission to Cambodia last year as one of three health and medical experts, which included Marina Staiff of Switzerland and Pierre Duterte of France. Dr Staiff and Dr Duterte were tasked with the psychological assessment of 11 clients of the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO); Dr Hansen was there to conduct the physical examination of those clients.
When he traveled last year to Cambodia, he says, he approached the task – that of examining those claiming torture to verify their allegations – through near-endless research. He read all the books he could find on the country’s devastating history, the four years of Khmer Rouge rule from 1974 to 1979, during which half the population was killed in labour camps and through extrajudicial executions and torture.
He also visited the infamous Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former high school turned torture centre during the Khmer Rouge period. There he noted particular leg shackles – metal bars in a D-shape. One part of this story.
He was particularly pessimistic about this task, he says. He read crushing personal testimonies from that four-year peiriod. But he was in doubt about his possible role in helping them.
“This was more than 30 years ago, and I thought I would probably not be able to do anything. Even with very recent torture, there can be difficulty in finding physical confirmation in an examination.”
Getting the evidence
TPO, an IRCT member, sits in a tall, modern building in the capital Phnom Penh. They offer a vast array of psychosocial services, in particular for victims of sexual and gender-based violence and victims of the genocide of the 1970s. They are providing assistance to victims of the genocide who have come forth as witnesses in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), the tribunal that, since 2007, has been tasked with trying former Khmer Rouge officials on crimes against humanity, including war crimes, murder, torture and genocide. There are many thousands of survivors of the genocide who have registered as witnesses in the cases.
The 11 clients that the three doctors examined were among these thousands registered in ‘Case 002′ at the ECCC. The hybrid tribunal brings together the Cambodia judiciary and international experts to assist in the ongoing trials of Khmer Rouge leaders. Only one case – Case 001 – has concluded. The ECCC found Khang Khek Leu, often called ‘Duch’, guilty of crimes against humanity, including murder and torture. During the regime, Leu ran the Tuol Sleng prison.
Dr Hansen tells me that Tuol Sleng, now a museum, provided much of the research he conducted alongside the examination of the 11 clients. There, he says, an estimated 20,000 people were detained during those four years of whom there are only seven known survivors . The rest were killed, either through devastating incarceration, torture, and murder or labour camps. But it was in Tuol Sleng that Hansen saw the D-shaped leg shackles. These particular shackles were also depicted in the art work of Vann Nath, one of the handfuls of survivors of Toul Sleng.
On all of the clients that claimed they were shackled during their torture were small scars along their ankles. They were extremely faint. But they were there.
“These marks were consistent with their testimonies. We say that findings are consistent with claims of torture. We do not directly say, ‘Yes, these people were tortured.’ That is the job of the judiciary. But yes, all the shackle scars were highly consistent with the allegations.”
Further clients had marks of burns caused by metal rods. Others had marks from arms binds around their elbows. The physical scars of torture, nearly 30 years after they occurred, still testify to their agonizing experiences at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Old scars can still tell stories.
Forensic evidence at the ECCC
It is not known yet if this forensic evidence will be used in the ECCC in Case 002. Three top Khmer Rouge leaders are one trial: Ieng Sary, former foreign minister; Nuon Chea, the regime’s second in command; and Khieu Samphan, a former head of state. A fourth, Ieng Thirith, who was the social affairs minister, was found unfit to stand trial, reportedly because she has Alzheimer’s, and was dismissed from the case. All four are more than 80 years old.
Although it remains a possibility, Dr Hansen is doubtful over whether he will be called to testify to the tribunal. The use of forensic documentation is still not well-enough understood throughout the world, even among the judiciary, and with a witness list numbering well over a thousand, there is still much evidence to go through. The process allowed anyone with an allegation to come forth, provide testimony and register as a witness; it included allegations of war crimes, genocide, murder, rape, other sexual violence, forced marriage, forced labour, and massive accounts of neglect resulting in starvation and death from untreated medical needs.
However, regardless of whether or not he testifies, Dr Hansen remains extremely positive about the experience. “We now know that you can confirm torture allegations that are nearly 30 years old. We know that we should not discount the possibility of finding forensic evidence even from such old cases. People often ask me, ‘How can you read about these cases?’ People say, ‘It’s just so terrible to read this.’ It is terrible. But we should read and learn, and then you can help. What I’m saying is just that these stories should never be forgotten.’
Tessa, a US citizen living in Denmark, is Communications Officer at the IRCT.