Archive for category Europe
Lying on the eastern Black Sea coast, lying north-west of Georgia and the Caucasus mountains and south-west of Russia, there is an area which does not exist as a country to many except to most of those who live there.
Abkhazia and its state of recognition is a key issue in the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict. Formed out of the dissolution of the Soviet Union through the 1980s and into the nineties, Abkhazia is recognised as an independent state only by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, the partially recognised state of South Ossetia, and the similarly unrecognised Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh regions.
To the United Nations Abkhazia is part of Georgia – a part which Georgia has no control over despite the government of Abkhazia operating, in exile, in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.
This conflict over recognition, and the geographic area as a whole, is now decades old. The War in Abkhazia, which began in 1992 and ended in military defeat of the Georgian army in 1993, granted independence of Abkhazia but also paved the way for the mass ethnic cleansing of Georgians living in Abkhazia.
On 27 September 1993, 21 years ago this week, a Russia-backed campaign began to displace and kill Georgian settlers in the Abkhazia region following the takeover of the now-capital city of Sukhumi. Approximately 250,000 Georgians were displaced and 30,000 were killed in the ethnic cleansing campaign across the region.
“The war was horrifying,” says Vaja today in a story published by the IRCT. “I saw so many people die, and so many of my friends were hurt. Two of my friends died in my arms during the time I served. The trauma made me unstable and became too much for me, so I turned to drugs. This landed me with a prison sentence in 2005.”
Despite efforts for peace in 1994, the situation remains tense and no resolve has been found. There is still damage from the war and from the genocide which has caused chronic trauma in the minds of many. For Vaja it is not just challenging to overcome wartime trauma but also the trauma which evolved from post-war torture.
While Vaja’s psychological trauma was obvious, physical torture was not apparent throughout the war or its aftermath. Four-and-a-half years in a Georgian prison changed that.
“I was beaten several times. I was beaten so hard, even in my first week in the cell, that my forehead was crushed,” Vaja decribes.
“The crushing sound of my forehead cracking was so loud. All I remember was blood pouring from my skull. I had been in war – I had seen fights, conflict, pain and death. But I had not seen anyone enjoy taking pleasure in causing pain. It was frightening to witness.”
Released in 2013, some 2,800 days after his original alleged four-year sentence, Vaja is still struggling with his wartime flashbacks and his torture.
“To this day I have flashbacks and nightmares, not just about my time in the war, but about my time in the prison during that period,” Vaja explains.
“But my experiences still trouble me. It will live with me my whole life.”
Today Vaja overcomes his trauma of war and torture thanks to assistance from IRCT member the Georgian Center for Psychosocial and Medical Rehabilitation of torture Victims (GRCT). Their help has aided him in owning a café and becoming a leader for archaeological expeditions.
“The journey to overcome torture is tough, but you can learn to live life to the fullest and move past your experiences,” Vaja concludes.
IRCT Advocacy Advisor Elena Zacharenko, based in the IRCT’s European Affairs Office, explains the main changes in the political landscape of the European Parliament and speculates on how these alterations could affect the priorities of human rights organisations.
While for most EU citizens the European elections of 25 May might seem like a distant memory, the fallout of the polling day has kept the European Parliament (EP) even busier than usual in the past month and a half. The newly elected (or re-elected) 751 MEPs from the EU’s 28 member states have been frantically trying to set up new groups, coalitions and divide up the numerous vacant posts in the new EP.
One-month after the election it has become clear that the landscape in the new parliament differs significantly from the previous legislature: the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group has gone from being the fifth to the third most numerous political family, pushing both the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and the European Greens (Greens/EFA) further down in the hierarchy of the EP, meaning fewer chances to obtain agenda-setting committee chairmanships for these groups. Furthermore, the highly eurosceptic Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD, previously Europe of Freedom and Democracy) group, despite numerous defections to the ECR, grew by 14 members thanks to the addition of MEPs from the previously absent Italian Five Star Movement.
For the IRCT and other human rights organisations working in Brussels, this suggests that the focus of the EP might turn away from human rights issues within and outside of the EU and towards efforts to dismantle the achievements of EU integration – a worrying trend if it occurs which will require even greater and closer engagement from both the NGOs and the groups which hold human rights close to their hearts.
The chairmanships crucial to IRCT’s work in Brussels have been largely taken by the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group, which will preside over the Committees on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, Development as well as the Subcommittee on Human Rights.
As also the presidency of the entire European Parliament has once again been awarded to S&D’s Martin Schulz, the IRCT European Affairs Office will need to focus on forging a close relationship with key S&D members of parliament as well as the group’s political staffers in order to influence the agenda of the committee meetings and the topics they plan to work on in the coming year. Hopefully the IRCT can expect a continuation of the type of close relationship it enjoyed during the previous legislature with S&D MEP Veronique de Keyser, who authored the EP report on the eradication of torture in the world (passed with a huge majority of 608 votes in favour in March 2014).
However, the dust has not yet completely settled on the EU political arena. It is still not clear which of the 14 newly elected Vice Presidents of the EP will be hold the responsibility for mainstreaming human rights inside the institution and its policies within their portfolio. The post was previously occupied by ALDE’s Edward McMillan Scott, who proved to be and active and vocal supporter of human rights who worked closely with civil society. Time will tell if his successor follows this example.
Outside of the EP, appointments to the EU’s executive body – the European Commission – are still up in the air. The appointees for posts of Commissioner for Justice and Fundamental Rights, Home Affairs, Development, EU Neighbourhood Policy and Health – as well as that of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs – will influence the EU’s action and legislation in areas crucial to the IRCT, notably eradicating torture and providing rehabilitation to victims.
The EU’s current efforts to promote human rights outside of its borders as well as ensure victims’ rights within them need to be vastly enhanced. The EU’s new top leaders will play a deciding role in this process and therefore must act decisively against torture.
As the number of conflicts around the world rises, so do the numbers of people seeking asylum. One particular region aimed for by many asylum seekers is Europe, with Germany accepting the most asylum seekers in 2013.
Yet simply accepting asylum seekers and refugees is not enough – their health condition must be documented, as well as any traumatic experiences, so these refugees are not abandoned in their new home. In this context the right skills to document torture become paramount, and two IRCT members in Germany are offering training courses to improve the documentation of torture in Germany.
According to a survey of the United Nations, Germany was, with 109,600 new asylum applications in 2013, “the largest single recipient of new asylum claims among the group of industrialized countries”.
In 2013, the Federal Bureau for Migration and Refugees presided over 80,978 asylum cases. Only 1.1 % of the applicants were granted full asylum; 12.3 % received refugee status; and 11.4 % received other residence permits. A total of 38.5 % were denied asylum and for another 36.7 % “formal decisions” were made.
Figures show that the majority of these asylum seekers come from regions where there is ongoing war, crisis, or political, religious or ethnical persecution. Such countries include Syria, the Russian Federation (mainly Chechnya), Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Eritrea. Also many Roma from Serbia and others from Bosnia and Herzegovina seek asylum.
Between thirty and forty percent of these refugees and asylum seekers in Germany are severely traumatized. Many have, either in their home countries or on their journey to Europe, suffered torture and other severe human rights violations. Survivors of torture often show serious psychological and psychosomatic symptoms and also sometimes physical consequences of torture, and are therefore in urgent need of help.
However, according to a report of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), 72% of the centres for the treatment and rehabilitation of traumatized refugees and torture victims, questioned in Europe and beyond, state that there is no special “procedure in place to identify victims of torture within the national asylum procedure”.
Helping maintain standards
Recognised standards for the examination and documentation of alleged torture cases – such as the Istanbul Protocol and an analogue model and curriculum for Germany “Standards for the examination of psychologically traumatized persons (available in German only)” – have existed since 2001. Since then trainings under both standards have been realised in Germany by the Chamber of Doctors and Psychologists, together with IRCT members Center for Treatment of Torture Victims (bzfo) in Berlin and the Medical Care Service for Refugees Bochum (MFH).
There is a lack of trained experts on the forensic documentation of torture and when, though rarely, courts call for expert opinions on asylum processes, any health professional can be called. However, not every health professional specialises in the effects of torture, thereby rendering a great number of reports and medical certificates insufficient in these matters.
It is crucial for the therapeutic success as well as for the asylum procedure to identify victims of torture and other severe human rights violations at an early stage. Otherwise, time will already have passed before torture survivors go through any examinations, leading to the consequence that their trauma may become chronic.
Psychological consequences of torture
Not every torture survivor shows psychological or physical disorders, nevertheless the absence of physical or psychological consequences of torture does in no way proof that torture has not taken place. Those victims which have undergone a psychiatric-psychological examination though predominantly show severe symptoms, the most common being post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Besides an adequate therapeutic treatment, it is further necessary that the refugees concerned benefit from the full range of possibilities offered by rehabilitation and the acknowledgement, socially as well as legally, of the injustice that has been done to them. The denial of acknowledgment and justice can have severe negative effects on the therapeutic process of victims of torture. To tackle this, in 2011 the Medical Care Service for Refugees Bochum (MFH) has established a work area called “Justice heals” which deals with the predominant problem of impunity of perpetrators all over the world.
In order to close the gap between needed knowledge and lack of training possibilities in Germany concerning the preparation of medico-legal reports, the Professorship for Medical Ethics of the Friedrich-Alexander University in Erlangen-Nuremberg (FAU) and the Center for Treatment of Torture Victims (bzfo) in Berlin – together with the Medical Care Service for Refugees Bochum (MFH) – are offering interdisciplinary seminars on the examination and documentation of torture.
These seminars are addressed in particular to physicians of all fields as well as psychologists, jurists and other professionals which potentially having to deal with survivors of torture. The seminars provide insight into the main features of legal, psychological and somatic aspects of the documentation of torture, complemented by workshops for the respective topics. The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) has taken over patronage for the seminars.
Berlin: 28. – 29. June 2014
Haus der Demokratie und Menschenrechte
Greifswalder Straße 4
Düsseldorf: 5. – 6. July 2014
Ärztekammer Nordrhein | Tersteegenstraße 9
Munich: 26. – 27. July 2014
EineWeltHaus | Schwanthalerstr. 80
For further information please visit: www.mfh-bochum.de
Back in January 2014, upon the presentation of a 250-page report to the International Criminal Court (ICC) detailing the role of British troops in torturing Iraqi citizens, the British Ministry of Defence strongly disputed evidence that soldiers had any role in torture during the war on terror.
“We reject the suggestion the UK’s Armed Forces – who operate in line with domestic and international law – have systematically tortured detainees,” said a spokesperson at the time.
But following the recent report that the ICC will investigate Iraq war crimes claims – and the recent news from the Independent newspaper where a British resident, Ahmed Diini, alleges torture in Egypt by MI5 – it seems the involvement of Britain’s security forces in torture could be becoming harder to deny.
And for a nation assumed to be a good example of human rights defence, the increased reports linking Britain to torture paints a troubling picture where human rights are second-best to assuring national security.
Let’s turn our attention to perhaps the biggest case: that of Baha Mousa, a case which in 2007 led to the prosecution and imprisonment of British soldier Donald Payne who was found guilty of war crimes. A 26-year-old Iraqi receptionist, Baha died in custody in Basra in 2003 following hours of torture – some of which was filmed by the torturers and their colleagues.
The full extent of Baha’s injuries – which included broken ribs, damaged kidneys, a broken nose, and clear signs of being held in stress positions for over a day – were only finally reported in 2011 following a public inquiry. By this time the guilty soldier Mr Payne, the main torturer in the case, had been out of prison for three-years, having served his one-year sentence.
At this time the Defence Ministry vowed to stop these instances of torture. And in 2013 the commitment to ending torture was echoed by the head of MI5 Andrew Parker, who told MPs that the security services “do not participate, incite, encourage or condone mistreatment or torture and that is absolute.” The recent claims though dispute this commitment to end torture once more.
It therefore seems that Britain is not learning the lesson that torture is never justified. While assuring national security is important, ensuring safety cannot be done via torture.
The ‘ticking timebomb’ scenario – where torturing someone who has hidden a hypothetical bomb yields results – does not happen in reality. Torture, simply, is not the right way to investigate or to prove anything.
And whether or not all of these emerging claims of torture prove to be true, it is clear the issue of torture, and the steps that need to be taken to prevent it, are not being taken seriously among many in a country which often applauds its own human rights record.
Following a recent trip to Budapest, Hungary, IRCT Communications Officer Ashley Scrace recounts his visit to the House of Terror – a part-museum, part-memorial recounting the torture in the city.
To tourists and locals, Andrássy út in Budapest is renowned as one of the grandest roads through the sprawling eastern Pest side of the city. But Budapest’s beautiful boulevard has a dark past, one punctuated by torture, terror, and death.
Based in the former headquarters for the secret police of both the Nazi and Communist governments, the House of Terror at number 60 Andrássy út is a museum-memorial reflecting on the terrifying decades of Nazi and Communist repression across Hungary.
Much of the museum features exhibits relating to the torture during the regimes, with particular focus on the extermination of the Jewish population across Budapest by the Nazis and the Communists.
Towards the end of World War II, Budapest was overpowered by the Nazi-affiliated Arrow Cross Movement – a movement which did its best to continue the will of the Nazis and exterminate all of Budapest’s Jewish population. From one-by-one shootings in the streets, to hangings and group executions into the freezing River Danube, they executed hundreds of Jews from across the city.
Another place for executions, extensive torture, and interrogation, was the basement of 60 Andrássy út, where the House of Terror stands today. When the communists moved into Hungary in the late-1940s’, they took over the same building used by the Arrow Cross movement as the headquarters of their secret police (the ÁVO, later renamed ÁVH).
By the time the transition to Stalinist rule was complete in 1949, the headquarters were already feared and known as a place of torture used to silence not only the Jewish population, but to silence any civilians whose views differed to those of the state.
It was in the basement where, until the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, ‘enemies of the state’ were tortured an imprisoned. In order to remember this today, the museum carefully recreates the torture chambers and prison cells used by the secret police, complete with some original torture devices.
It’s an eerie experience to walk around these chambers, knowing you are treading on a past hub of torture. The prisoners in these cells had no hope, and while not all of them were killed under interrogation, the torture ruined their lives and the lives of their families for years to come.
The historical context of both the Nazi and Communist regimes are summarised across a series of information boards, pictures and video clips which becoming increasingly chilling as the journey through the museum unravels. And the entrance hall, which features pictures of all victims of torture in the building, haunts you as you enter and exit the museum.
It is harrowing to think that some of the elderly locals who visit the museum perhaps have personal ties to some of the victims, and perpetrators, listed in the museum. The dark history of Hungary is, after all, not that far in the past.
Thankfully the life of 60 Andrássy út transformed following the 1956 revolution – it became a local Communist youth club. But the traumatic, horrifying atmosphere of the building remains, even with renovation. The walls of the building do contain stories, stories which are perhaps too dark or distressing to ever fully be told.
But the House of Terror does a good job of telling these stories. While criticisms exist regarding the narrow focus of the exhibits – which specifically omit some Hungarian sympathies which existed at the time towards the extermination of the Jews – the museum overall paints an insightful, disturbing picture of the past, reminding visitors just how incapacitating torture is and why it is torture, not communities, which should be eradicated.
Over the past week, we donated the World Without Torture Twitter account to two Syrian refugees who have been telling their story of escaping the conflict in Syria, as part of a campaign to raise awareness of Syrian refugees in Europe. We look at what we have learnt about their experience.
As the Syrian conflict enters its fourth year, there is no avoiding that the conflict has created one of the biggest humanitarian crises in history. According to recent statistics from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNCHR), nine-million Syrians have been displaced by the conflict, over two-million of which have fled to neighbouring countries.
But to date, only 80,000 refugees have fled to Europe – a number which the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) believes is low due to tough restrictions on refugees entering the continent.
ECRE’s campaign – “Europe Act Now” – utilises social media to promote the stories of Syrian refugees who are in need of a safe passage to Europe, in an attempt to pressure European decision-makers to safeguard the rights of refugees.
Telling their story of the conflict through the World Without Torture Twitter were husband and wife Osama, 32, and Zaina, 26. From Aleppo, Osama and Zaina never anticipated the conflict would displace them and their two children. To escape, they aimed for Sweden, but instead found asylum in Greece.
Yet now, the couple are facing hardship still after being beaten and robbed in Greece.
Telling their story on Twitter, Osama and Zaina miss Syria but know they cannot return there now.
“Our daughter couldn’t sleep. She used to cover her ears to block out the sound of gunshots. Just leaving the house to buy bread was dangerous. We had to pass checkpoints to get to the bakery,” they said on Twitter.
“Getting my family from Turkey to safety in Scandinavia would cost €40,000. We didn’t have that money. European countries could take Syrian refugees who are in Turkey, Jordan, Iraq or in the camps.”
The reality of refugees is further complicated when we consider that health professionals and researchers commonly estimate that between 4-35% of refugees worldwide have been subjected to torture. These figures demonstrate that this is not a marginal problem of a marginal community, but a substantial problem that must be urgently addressed.
Join us in pushing for better policy and practice related to the identification and protection of refugee torture survivors and to safeguard the rights of refugees.
So far nearly 300,000 people on Twitter have been reached by the campaign, which continues until World Refugees Day on 20 June.
To read the full selection of tweets on our Twitter, please click this link.
And to find out more about the campaign, click here.
“He’s missing a piece of his chest and I can see his heart beating,” says one unidentified US Army Officer recalling a heavy firefight in Afghanistan. But for the victim, a 15-year-old Omar Khadr, the injuries were only the start of his pain.
Held in Guantanamo Bay for 10 years, and now detained in a Canadian jail, Canadian citizen Omar Khadr is just one tragic example of human rights abuses under the watch of a country often deemed to champion human rights.
Following the bombardment on his compound in 2002, Omar was held prisoner and tortured in Bagram, Afghanistan, by the US military, suspected of killing Sergeant Christopher Speer in the battle. It is a charge human rights groups have contested ever since, particularly amidst reports the US military doctored their accounts of the battle to mask Speer’s death from friendly fire as murder by an Afghani insurgent.
And despite being a child soldier at the time of the alleged killing – by definition of the UN Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict – Omar was controversially charged as an adult for war crimes in 2012.
Fighting for his freedom ever since is Dennis Edney QC, who is assisting Omar in overturning his sentence from his prison cell in Canada.
To highlight the case, and to illuminate the human rights abuses, the London Guantanamo Campaign has arranged a series of talks with Mr Edney from 12 March.
Held at various locations across London, and one talk in York, Mr Edney’s tour culminates with an appearance at Amnesty International on 18 March.
The talks, which are free admission, will no doubt provide a unique insight not only into the human rights abuses and torture in the case of Omar, but also the ill-treatment that exists worldwide, and the failings of governments often considered to uphold a decent standard of human rights.
For a full calendar of talks and for ticket information, please click this link.
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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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.