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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.
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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Despite a strong government crackdown on protestors, over 300,000 people took to the streets of Bahrain’s capital Manama on 14 February to mark the three-year anniversary of the Bahraini protests.
And despite three-years of torture, imprisonment, and even deaths of protestors, the demonstrations against the government do not seem to be slowing down.
But also what is not slowing down is the government’s resistance to relinquishing power to the people. On the anniversary march alone, over 50 people were injured by rubber pellets and tear gas fired by police.
The last three years have seen the Bahraini government, the House of Al Khalifa, use extreme force over protestors whom are campaigning for respect for human rights. In every protest, the government has repelled the protestors with the use of force. The result over three years is shocking: according to data from The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), 93 people have died; more than 2,200 political prisoners remain in detention; and torture and enforced disappearances remain widespread on a daily basis.
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) has tracked the uprising since day one and Maryam Al-Khawaja, Acting President of the BCHR following the arrest of President Nabeel Rajab, knows in detail the harm the government can cause.
Her father, prominent human rights defender Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, has been imprisoned since April 2011 for allegedly plotting a coup during the pro-democracy protests. Maryam’s sister Zainab – who was recently released from detention – still faces a string of ‘anti-government’ charges. They are just two cases out of thousands who have been silenced by the government.
“People seem to assume that somehow the Bahrain revolution failed but I do not think it is fair to assess the revolution as ‘failed’,” said Maryam Al-Khawaja in a piece to World Without Torture. “It is just an inconvenient revolution – a revolution which is happening in a country which is solidly linked to the interests of the West in terms of oil, trading and so on that it would prove problematic to recognise as an active, powerful movement.”
Three years on, her assessment certainly still seems accurate. Aside from the occasional news report online, the world seems oblivious to Bahrain: the country is still portrayed as a safe haven for foreign investment and tourism; and large-scale international events, such as the Formula One Grand Prix, still continue to uphold the myth that Bahrain is free from unrest.
Yet the sheer numbers of protestors marking the importance of the ‘revolution’ tell a different story about the realities of Bahrain: its people want a democratic change from the 230-year-old Al Khalifa rule.
With human rights coming into question on a daily basis, it is a change that is needed – now, not in another three years.
In the blog this week we profile the newest member of the IRCT network, the Kirkuk Center for Torture Victims, offering torture rehabilitation in northern Iraq.
Founded in 2005, the Kirkuk Center for Torture Victims is an important multi-branched organisation offering rehabilitative services to victims of torture in the region. It is the second IRCT member in Iraq, and was founded with support from the Berlin Center for Torture Victims, a leading European institution caring for survivors of torture, persecution and genocide.
The Kirkuk centre offers services tailored to a wide variety of social groups including female and young victims of torture, victims of genocide, refugees who are survivors of torture, and many more.
Quite simply, thanks to extensive support programmes, there is no one the centre cannot help. This openness has been highlighted once more with their recent treatment of an influx of Syrian refugees at the centre whom, despite fleeing their homeland in large numbers, have had the same excellent treatment from the Kirkuk centre.
The deep understanding of the challenges refugees particularly face is perhaps ingrained in the centre’s beliefs thanks to the experience of Salah Ahmed, founder and chairman of the centre.
Himself being of Kurdish-Iraqi origin, Salah Ahmad fled his home country in 1981 and sought refuge in Germany, where he studied pedagogics and later on became a psychotherapist. At the Berlin Center for Torture Victims he has treated hundreds of survivors of torture from all over the world.
After the fall of the Saddam regime, Mr. Ahmed returned to his hometown Kirkuk where in 2005 he established the first rehabilitation centre for survivors of torture in Iraq.
Until today, he still recalls one of his first patients, a young woman who had been imprisoned, tortured and held a sex slave for more than 10 years by Saddam’s security forces.
“She had had multiple abortions and given birth to three children in prison. It took more than one year of intensive therapy until I saw this woman smile for the first time”, recalls Salah Ahmad. “She was my first patient in Kirkuk and the biggest challenge of my professional career.”
Since these first days, the Kirkuk Center has come a long way. “Many things have changed since the first patient walked through our door,” Salah says. “The political and the security situation in Kirkuk and in Central Iraq is really worrying. But we have been able to help more than 11,000 patients in six cities in north Iraq.
“When I travel through my country and visit the big cities in the north, I think that hope always dies last. What we have built in this country during the past 10 years is incredible.”
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.”