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Nearly three weeks since the 26 June campaign swept the world, we continue to receive photos from the big day. As always, various torture rehabilitation centres across the globe came out in force to celebrate and honour victims and survivors of torture, and their photos offer a unique insight into some of the many activities and events that took place.
Under the theme ‘Right to Rehabilitation’ the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims’ member Albanian Rehabilitation Centre for Trauma and Torture dedicated a special exhibition to the sufferings of victims of the communist regime. The exhibition included photographs, names and faces of people who were initially persecuted for political reasons and then imprisoned and executed without trial.
At the University of South Australia, nearly 300 people attended an event co-organised by the university and local rehabilitation centre Survivors of Torture and Trauma Assistance and Rehabilitation Service (STTARS). Regional Representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Thomas Albrecht delivered the keynote speech, discussing the global challenge of refugee protection, with specific focus on providing sustained support to survivors of violence and torture.
IRCT member The Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture hosted 26 June events that saw around 140 participants, including survivors, experts and community members come together to discuss and learn about the consequences of traumatic experiences as well as the successes and challenges associated with helping torture survivors overcome their past. The day included a photo exhibition, a set of discussions, and theatrical and musical performances.
IRCT member in Russia, The Committee Against Torture organised a series of peaceful organisations in Nizhny Novgorod, Orenburg and Yoshkar-Ola dedicated to 26 June – complete with red balloons. In Moscow a similar event was organised together with Amnesty International.
In Sri Lanka, HRO Kandy held a poster exhibition themed “Justice & Dignity for all” in the days leading up to 26 June. The exhibition, which attracted more than 3,500 visitors in the course of two days, depicted the rights of individuals through posters drawn by school children. The message that HRO Kandy wanted to share with the visitors was: “Say No to Torture”.
We encourage you to share your photos and stories with us either as a comment here or on our World Without Torture Facebook page.
The Russian government has once again been criticised after introducing a new law that allows any foreign or international NGO to be declared “undesirable” and to be shut down. The law is the latest attempt to limit the impact of human rights organisations that are deemed anti-government. Adding to this, local and international NGOs continue to be targets of intimidation and discrimination.
Three staff from the Danish rehabilitation centre, Danish Institute Against Torture (DIGNITY) were fined and expelled from Russia while on a recent mission to provide technical assistance on trauma rehabilitation and prevention of torture. Their work with a Russian human rights organisation, the Committee Against Torture (NGO CAT) had been publicly announced, and despite having secured visas they were found to be in violation of Russian visa regulations.
DIGNITY and NGO CAT are both members of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) and their aim is to support and treat survivors of torture. A mission that many governments value. Yet, in Russia, NGO CAT is one of many civil society organisations facing increasing hostility.
The Russian government recently introduced a new law that makes it possible to ban foreign NGOs and prosecute their employees, who risk up to six years in prison or being barred from the country. The law is the latest step in a series of restrictions on civil society, NGOs and human rights defenders.
In 2012, the Russian parliament adopted a new law that required NGOs to register as “foreign agents” if they engaged in “political activity” and received foreign funding. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), in Russia “foreign agent” can be interpreted only as “spy” or “traitor,” and there is little doubt that the law aims to demonise and marginalise independent advocacy groups.
NGO CAT are among the organisations labelled a foreign agent, and the centre fears that it could be forced to close down unless a court removes the tag. But as the Russian president Vladimir Putin seems set on imposing more restrictions on independent organisations and civil society, a removal of the tag is highly unlikely.
For NGO CAT, anti-NGO laws are not the only means of intimidation that the organisation is worried about. In December last year, the office of NGO CAT initiative, Joint Mobile Group (JMG), based in the Chechen capital Grozny was set on fire in what appears to be an act of intimidation by local authorities. The following day the police visited the provisional premises of NGO CAT and, for no apparent reason, seized the centre’s mobile phones, computers and CCTV cameras and held two staff members for several hours. Prior to the fire, NGO CAT staff had been receiving threatening phone calls and text messages.
Sadly, the story of NGO CAT is far from unique. Human rights groups and defenders are continuously subjected to acts of intimidation and threats. Offices have been raided, activists have been arrested and organisations fined. In some cases, prominent human rights defenders have even been killed, with no one charged with their murders.
Back in Denmark, the three DIGNITY employees remain puzzled as to why they were expelled, but the whole process leading up to their expulsion has revealed a flawed justice system allowing for false witness statements and documents.
Most of the international community have expressed their concern about the treatment of human rights defenders in Russia, and rightly so. For NGO CAT, the stakes are high. As the anti-NGO laws increase the pressure on the organisation, its future is uncertain. The only thing that seems certain at this point is Russia’s determination to repress NGOs.
On 3 June, a group of people broke into NGO CAT’s regional office and apartment in Grozny. According to NGO CAT’s regional coordinator Oleg Khabibrakhmanov, the group arrived late in the morning as part of a protest rally. Khabibrakhmanov said his colleagues in Grozny called police immediately but none arrived.
The men were seen to be smashing furniture, computers and destroying paper files and folders. Some of them brought an angle grinder and eventually broke through to the adjacent apartment where temporary staff of NGO CAT were working.
Over the past month many blogs have focused on the continuing involvement, direct or indirect, of the US in torture across the world.
As continued pressure grows on the US to release in full the CIA torture report, which highlights the extent of torture perpetrated by the CIA against terror suspects post-9/11, we reminded critics of the CIA to also remember that the torture methods and devices were designed by doctors – doctors who have a duty to heal, not harm. While the CIA role cannot be understated, the role of medical personnel in designing torture must be accounted for also.
Overseas, we joined hundreds of human rights organisations in calling for the US military to be held accountable for the deaths and torture of Afghani civilians and for better practices to ensure that families of the dead are made aware of the circumstances of death immediately. Currently many families simply do not know the true fate of their loved ones. This blindness prevent them not only knowing the truth, but also accessing justice and rehabilitation. This has to end.
Still in the US, but a more positive note, we looked at one program from the Harvard Program in Refugee Torture which is helping Cambodian survivors of torture overcome the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime.
Today Cambodians still come to terms with the Khmer Rouge regime, one which is still being brought to justice, most recently with the life sentences of Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, two figureheads of the regime.
For the survivors, justice only does so much. For many their families are destroyed and those who tortured them have already escaped punishment throughout the majority of their lives.
The article, which you can read here, is set to feature in the new edition of Torture Journal also.
Several floors under the busy Adlieh intersection in east Beirut, hundreds of people suffer harsh interrogation and torture in a makeshift detention centre.
It is a place unknown to many – thousands of commuters pass over the site every day. But it is a place very much present in the minds of refugees in the city, some of whom have spent time in this underground chamber.
It is this clandestine chamber that IRCT member centre Nassim for the rehabilitation of the victims of torture at the Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH) exposed and campaigned against on this year’s 26 June — the latest call of many to end torture and impunity in Lebanon.
Criticism of the Australian policy on detaining and deporting asylum seekers with little consideration for their wellbeing quietened over August. That was until Dr Peter Young, former director of IHMS mental health services, the company responsible for healthcare in all of Australia’s detention centres, boldly confronted what many have suspected for a long time: treatment in Australia’s asylum seeker detention centres is akin to torture.
We congratulated Dr Young for his honesty. Read more about it here.
The 143 IRCT members across the world are working tirelessly every day to ensure survivors of torture are rehabilitated, given access to reparations and justice and that torture is prevented within their contexts.
This month we focused on two centres in particular who are using art forms to rehabilitate torture survivors.
The first was the Accoglenza e Cura Vittime di Tortura (Vi.To.) project, funded via the European Union’s EIDHR (European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights) for IRCT member the Consiglio Italiano per I Rifugiati (CIR) (Italian Council for Refugees). Staff at the centre use theatre to help refugees and torture survivors overcome their experiences, build their self-esteem and teach them valuable new skills.
Secondly we focused on Freedom from Torture in the UK and their “Write to Life” project. A creative writing group the “Write to Life” project is one of the most powerful therapy programmes on offer. It has been meeting continuously every two-weeks for 12 years, has produced a formidable body of writing, and the participating torture survivors have reported that the group has aidedtheir rehabilitation – not bad for an initiative initially dismissed by some medical experts. You can read more about it here.
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While writing has often been appreciated as a mode of expression and creativity, as well as reporting and everyday communication, never before had creative writing been directly associated with torture rehabilitation.
The “Write to Life” project changes this. A creative writing group of Freedom From Torture (FFT) – an IRCT member centre and the UK’s only national charity dedicated to the holistic rehabilitation of survivors of torture from around the world – the “Write to Life” project is one of the most powerful therapy programmes on offer. It has been meeting continuously every two-weeks for 12 years, has produced a formidable body of writing, and the participating torture survivors have reported that the group has aidedtheir rehabilitation – not bad for an initiative initially dismissed by some medical experts.
“The positive effects have been pronounced and clear on those who work with the group,” says Write to Life’s coordinator Sheila Hayman. “With the combination of therapy through a key worker, who initially refers the survivor to the group, it allows many people who are sidelined in society to voice their opinions, to be creative, and to couple this with targeted therapy.
“I remember one of our group members said he preferred the writing therapy to face-to-face counselling, partly because the level of control rests entirely with the individual rather than a clinician. Each person writes what they want to write and in the style they want, and this means they can deal with their past and counsel themselves on their own terms.”
The positives are certainly echoed by two members of the group, Jade Amoli-Jackson and Yamikani Tracy Ndovi. Impressed by their stories and poems, Jade and Yamikani were invited to present their work at the IRCT’s 8 April event in Copenhagen to mark 40-years since the beginning of the international anti-torture movement.
Jade, from Uganda, worked as a sports reporter following her journalism training through school. But in 2001, Jade was forced to flee her homeland due to unrest that year caused by corrupt elections and crackdowns on society by the state.
“I was initially frightened when I started seeing doctors, therapists and so on through Freedom From Torture because it was something completely different to anything I had done,” Jade explains.
“But then I joined the ‘Write to Life’ group and began talking to others who had suffered, and I realised I was not alone. I began making friends. Being an asylum seeker is tough, and you are not trained to be on your own in a new country.
“It was a struggle to come to the UK,” says Jade, “but the writing group helped me make things better. It has helped me appreciate how far I have come. It has helped me appreciate myself again. It has allowed me to say what is on my mind.”
Jade’s friend and fellow group member, Yamikani, was born in Harare, Zimbabwe, where she studied electrical engineering. Her parents, who ran a flower farm which shipped flowers to the Netherlands and Canada, were assassinated in 2001 for allegedly collaborating with white Zimbabweans, a crime under the rule of Robert Mugabe.
Yamikani was imprisoned and only released at the point of near-death. Following an escape from the country, Yamikani made it to the UK before being deported to South Africa, then to Ireland, then to the Netherlands, and then eventually back to the UK. Only after five years in the UK was Yamikani finally reunited with her daughter, who now lives with her.
“Settling somewhere was so hard, and every time I found somewhere it was not the permanent solution – it was only the beginning of the nightmare,” she explains.
“I could never set foot in simple places, even like Heathrow Airport. I could not trust anyone. When I joined the writing group, sometimes I really did not want to go, and I would not like it. But now I like the group as it motivated me. Sometimes the pain is still in the back of my mind, but I do not show it. Instead I use it in my writing and to help others.”
The group has also helped Yamikani overcome her asylum fears: “You are not allowed to do everything that others can, and you are always aware that being an asylum seeker means that your rights could be taken away from you at any point,” she explains.
“When I got the letters from the Home Office, it made me relive my experiences all the time – it made me feel unwelcome. But when I came to this group, it helped me come to terms with what I was thinking.”
The group’s writing has had success beyond those who write with the group, and collaborations with the Tate Gallery, Sinfini Music and Carmen Electra Opera, and with Tamasha and Ice & Fire theatre companies, have been well received.
“It is hard to get status, and I appreciate the difficulty of it,” Jade adds. “All the people in the group have some guilt because they have found safety. But the writing has helped me come to terms with my past. We feel like ordinary, respected humans.”
Survivors of torture carry wounds which only targeted, specialised rehabilitation can heal. Often torture destroys not only the life of the victim but their life at home, their relationships with their family and friends, and their place in their community.
Therapy, medical care and a whole range of physical and psychological support projects help survivors of torture overcome their past. But one of the most important changes to a torture survivor, both on their way to and through rehabilitation, is the building of confidence and self-esteem to tackle their past and face the future.
Through the Accoglenza e Cura Vittime di Tortura (Vi.To.) project, funded via the European Union’s EIDHR (European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights, IRCT member the Consiglio Italiano per I Rifugiati (CIR) (Italian Council for Refugees) is using theatre to help refugees and torture survivors overcome their experiences, build their self-esteem and teach them valuable new skills.
We take a look at one of their most recent shows.
All of the Vi.To. performances feature refugees and torture survivors who have received, or are receiving, treatment from the CIR centre. Many of them have no previous acting experience but the professional team of make up artists and coaches ease them into their roles.
At one of their most recent performances, held to mark the International Day in Support of Torture Victims on 26 June, huge set pieces were required for the show, taking a lot of preparation and time. But it is something the staff and performers are used to – the project has been running since 2011 and there was expert guidance from Nube Sandoval and Bernado Rey.
The latest performance, a play inspired by Gabriel García Márquez’s short story ‘The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World’, features 15 refugees who participated in psycho-social rehabilitation theatre workshop as part of CIR’s Vi.To. project. The play focuses on the reactions of villagers in a seaside town who encounter an unknown dead man washed up on their beach.
The story is one of hope, acceptance and commemoration. It shows how the dead stranger is pulled from the sea and welcomed into the identity of the village as if he were one of their own and the realisation of change the villagers would have to make to adapt to accepting the handsome drowned man, a white man in an otherwise African community.
Over 400 people attended the performance, all giving positive and encouraging feedback about the performance of the cast, the direction and the messages which were prominent throughout the play. Approximately 1,300 refugees have been involved and rehabilitated since the project began.
After the performance – which is as nerve-racking as it is exciting – the cast and staff from CIR unite for an evening of dancing, showing their solidarity and support for victims of torture across the globe.
If you would like to find out more about CIR in Italy, click this link.
The Vi.To. performance will be featured in the upcoming 26 June Global Report, but if you would like to read more about the project then click this link.
As the war in Gaza draws to a 72 hour calm in its fourth week, organisations around the world are taking stock of the damage caused. Figures from the BBC show 1,450 people have died, the majority of whom are Palestinian civilians. Internal displacement is still a real issue as 43% of the country is marked as a no-go zone. And only now, weeks too late, is the first humanitarian aid arriving in Gaza.
But the often unsighted consequence of war is trauma. Every day hundreds of new cases of trauma are exhibited yet the services established to ease this very suffering are being destroyed every single minute.
This week the IRCT published a story reflecting on the strain its membership in Gaza and Palestine are facing amidst this war. The story highlights the strain the members face each day in providing some normality for survivors of torture and trauma.
But they are struggling. While international aid and support is welcome in this 72 hour truce, the war must end completely so suffering ceases and the region can be accessed by international agencies who can implement concrete strategies beyond this current three-day window.
In unity with this come many calls from IRCT members across the globe to end the fighting, to ensure rehabilitation services are prioritised immediately and to stand side-by-side to support the men, women and children who are at the mercy of this conflict.
Statements of solidarity and calls to end the war
One such statement of solidarity comes from IRCT member CORE-H2H in Manipur, India, who joined 24 other human rights organisations in the Asia region in calling for an immediate end to “one of the most horrendous humanitarian disasters and crisis of serious human rights violations of this century. ” (Click here to read the full statement)
In Latin America, the Latin American coalition Red Latinoamericana y del Caribe de Instituciones de Salud contra la Tortura (the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Health Institutions against Torture, Impunity and other violations of Human Rights) calls upon States and international organisations, as well as society as a whole, to recognise and condemn the continuing breaches of human rights obligations in this war. (Click here to read the full statement)
Finally the IRCT joined its colleagues in the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition who call for armed groups on both sides, Israel and Palestine, to observe an immediate ceasefire and halt their continuing violations on international human rights and humanitarian obligations. (Click here to read the full statement)
The IRCT, along with hundreds of human rights organisations across the globe, is following very closely the events in Gaza and stands united with its members in the region, and across the world, in calling for an end to this war. Only a bilateral ceasefire, enforced by the international community alongside provisions for rehabilitation, can provide real prospects for peace in at this time in the Middle East.
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.
Adapted from a piece written by Aisha Maniar of the London Guantánamo Campaign
For 12 years, 154 men facing terrorism charges have been held in a prison camp where conditions are inhumane and where torture has been documented. Still these men await any trial in this illegal prison.
It sounds unrealistic, but this is the situation in US-run prison camp Guantánamo Bay – one of the most potent symbols of torture and injustice in the world today. But despite this injustice being known among many, political inaction and lack of mainstream media attention has meant the issue of closing Guantánamo has slipped from the radar.
And that is why the Global Day of Action to Close Guantánamo, on 23 May, was such an important international event. Marking a year since President Obama pledged to shut the camp – following a mass hunger strike by prisoners against abuse from guards – the day saw over 30 human rights organisations across the world calling for the end of the prison.
Highlights from across the globe
In London, the London Guantánamo Campaign organised a lunchtime demonstration in Trafalgar Square involving 70 activists, some wearing orange jumpsuits and black hoods, holding placards reading: “Not Another Day in Guantánamo”.
As well as calling for the closure of Guantánamo, activists used a larger-than-life inflatable model of British resident Shaker Aamer to call for the return of this prisoner, who has long been cleared for release, to his family in London. The silent protest drew a lot of positive interest from the public, many of whom were unaware of the situation due to the lack of media coverage.
In Krakow, Poland, a handful of protesters held a peaceful demonstration outside the US consulate.
Leaflets were distributed which summarised the situation in Guantánamo Bay and also drew attention to the secret CIA ‘black site’ – used to torture and interrogate suspect Al-Qaeda members – which Poland established in return for an alleged 15 million dollars.
Some of the protesters wore orange jumpsuits and all held up placards calling for the closure of Guantánamo as well as welcoming Moroccan prisoner Younous Chekkouri who has been asked by the US for Germany to accept him as Chekkouri has family in Germany. The two-hour protest travelled to various well-known sites around the city.
In Toronto, Canada, a handful of protesters dressed in orange jumpsuits gathered in Dundas Square at lunchtime to demand the closure of Guantánamo and raise awareness about Omar Khadr, the former Guantánamo child prisoner who is the only person to have been tried and convicted as an adult since World War II for alleged war crimes committed as a minor. Khadr is currently serving out the remainder of his sentence in Canada, where the government and the media continue to vilify him.
In Mexico City, a handful of people held a protest outside the US Embassy, and in Sydney, Australia, the 23 May was used for a social media campaign with a public meeting held the next day. The crowded meeting, attended by dozens of people, included a screening of the film The Road to Guantánamo, and was followed by talks by human rights activists and former prisoner David Hicks.
In the US, hundreds of people took part in over 40 actions across the country, ranging from over one hundred protesters in New York’s Times Square to a protest outside the White House. Lawyers for the prisoners and activists spoke at the larger events and, in an attempt to send a clear message to the government, tourist sites and government buildings were also targeted for rallies.
In many cases, passers-by seemed oblivious to the protest, or even that Guantánamo was still in operation. Nonetheless, the very public and visual actions helped to raise a large amount of awareness about the torture and inhuman treatment inmates are still subjected to inside the facilities. All of the activists and organisations involved are committed to holding the US president to his promise and will continue to bring pressure when they can wherever they are until the closure of Guantánamo is no longer the subject of political speeches but of history classes.
What the bones remember: Doctors from IRCT partner PCATI share their experiences of documenting torture
Detecting signs of torture, often years after they have been caused, can be a tough task. However, due to advancing techniques in medical documentation of torture, physicians are able to establish the injuries inflicted by torture and the best methods of rehabilitation. Three physicians from IRCT partner Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) share their experiences.
For Dr Revital Arbel, torture was not something she had witnessed when her work with PCATI first begun. “Although I have been working in the field for years, particularly with victims of sexual assault, I will always remember a case following the pregnancy of an Eritrean refugee who was raped in Sinai,” she says.
“When she came in to deliver the baby she was accompanied by an interpreter for the first time, and they told me the story. Slowly the things she had been through in Sinai began to sink in. Like other refugee women imprisoned in Saharonim, she had not been able to undergo a termination of pregnancy at an early stage.”
Just as Dr Arbel realized realised the suffering, she received an invitation to participate in the first-ever training program in Israel for physicians and psychologists teaching ways to locate and diagnose torture victims.
The training, an ongoing project organised by PCATI and the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), provides training in the forensic aspects of torture. The knowledge is used to identify victims and to provide evidence in court or in other formal examinations, such as applications to the United Nations to receive refugee status.
Arbel now knows much more about torture in Israel and around the world than she thought possible. “Torture leaves marks,” she says, “and these remain in the body many years after the event. The interrogators may be careful not to leave blue bruises, but today we can also identify what’s under the skin – what the bones remember.”
A personal relationship with torture
For clinical psychologist Dr David Senesh, he understands torture all too well. Captured and imprisoned in an Egyptian jail for 40 days during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Dr Senesh has a personal relationship with torture which enhances his professional, medical understanding of its effects.
“I’m post-traumatic,” he says openly. “The guys who were held prisoner with me can’t figure out what I’m doing; how what we went through brought me to identify with the experience of occupation and treat Palestinians who have undergone torture. But from my perspective it’s a logical continuation.”
Neurologist Dr Bettina Birmanns, who works in the same hospital as the other physicians in Jerusalem, attempts to explain why she found herself repeatedly dealing with the topic of torture. “I’m increasingly convinced that when a state permits torture, it damages the fabric of the state and destroys trust between citizens the authorities. Even if ‘regular’ citizens do not believe that they will be affected, the fact that someone in an official position is allowed to use serious violence and deliberately cause someone else pain and suffering, damaging their inner kernel and soul – and we know that this happens – that destroys society. I cannot accept that.”
The three doctors admit that they paid a heavy emotional price for their participation in the series of workshops. Alongside theoretical sessions discussing methods of torture around the world, trainee participants also diagnosed actual cases, engaged in role-playing exercises, and confronted professional and personal dilemmas.
“There’s a reason why the training program attracted relatively long-serving physicians,” Arbel suggests. “I think this work demands maturity, and I’m glad that I didn’t suggest that any of our interns join it. Maturity is important in order to act properly and cope with the difficult exposure to the people involved and their stories. You also require moderation – you cannot be too extreme in either direction, but need a mature view of life.”
‘You just can’t ignore torture anymore’
But they feel that with trainings such as these – and with the sharing of knowledge and mechanisms to ensure states comply with their anti-torture obligations – torture can be stopped across the globe.
“You reach a point where you just can’t ignore [torture] anymore,” says Dr Birmanns. “You hear the traumatic stories, and you see the victims after they were tortured – what they experienced has an impact on their health, their psychological condition, and their relations with their wives, children, and with society at large.”
“People undergo personality changes. They’ll never be the same as they were before they were tortured. They were all imprisoned afterwards and didn’t receive treatment. So first they are tortured during interrogation, which results with various kinds of problems. And then their imprisonment kind of freezes the situation, and when they are released all kinds of issues and experiences erupt and those around them don’t know how to cope with it. People are happy to see them out of jail, but they are not really the same people who went into jail, partly because of the torture.
“I still believe that a law-abiding state should not deliberately cause pain and suffering and ruin someone’s life. There should be a border that remains uncrossed, beyond any discussion.”
A new video from the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) uses compelling interviews with leading professionals in the anti-torture field not only to explain the rights of torture victims, but to highlight existing barriers to torture rehabilitation.
The video, which features Dr. Mechthild Wenk-Ansohn from BZFO, an IRCT member, and IRCT patron and former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak, discusses what rights torture survivors have under the United Nations Convention Against Torture.
“Torture is one of the most serious human rights violations,” says Manfred Nowak in the piece. “Because of this, torture survivors are in need of whatever support and rehabilitation is available to overcome their experience of torture.
“Yet most of the time, rehabilitation is provided by centres in urgent need of money. There needs to be force on to states to provide full rehabilitation.”
The ECCHR is a human rights group which focuses on providing human rights litigation to hold state and non-state actors accountable for the violations of the rights of the most vulnerable.
It is their hope that with video pieces, such as this, more people will understand just how prevalent torture is around the world and what ore needs to be done to stop it.
You can watch the video below.