Archive for category Justice
The use of torture is a contentious topic that has caused a myriad of heated arguments between those who believe the practice can be justified and those who say that it is a serious human rights violation that can never be tolerated. As a result, many myths and misconceptions have sprung up about torture, poisoning the debate.
In this blog we debunk 7 of the most common myths about torture.
Torture works and there are no better alternatives
In the wake of last year’s release of the CIA torture report, there has been an ongoing and toxic debate over the use of torture. Does it work? Is it really that bad? The defenders of torture argue that had it not been for the CIA’s torture program, cities like London would have been hit by terrorist attacks. They also claim that at times, torture is a necessary evil to keep us all safe.
These are just some of many misconceptions about torture. Not only do we now know that what took place at Guantanamo Bay actually led to false confessions and stories, history also tells us that torture is not an effective means of acquiring intelligence.
Torture always leaves visible scars and is easy to document
That is not always the case. Unlike the infamous torture methods used in the Middle Ages, states today are trying very hard to hide their crimes. Thus, many torture methods leave little or no physical marks. Some examples are mock executions, temperature manipulation, sensory torture (noise and light), waterboarding (mock drowning), threats of harm to friends or family, and sleep deprivation. Increasingly sophisticated methods are harder to document, and the effects they produce more likely to be invisible, thus contributing to impunity.
Torture is anything awful done to a person
While the CIA ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ are torture, getting up early in the morning for work and doing the dishes is not. The UN Convention against Torture includes a widely accepted definition of torture. Torture always involves:
- severe pain or suffering, physical or mental
- extraction of information or a confession, punishment, intimidation or coercion, or discrimination of any kind
- a public official or person in an official capacity (the perpetrator)
Torture is a thing of the past
Most people connect torture to the Middle Ages and some have visited medieval torture museums to learn about this ancient practice. Back then, torture was considered a legitimate way to extract confessions, punish offenders, and perform executions. It turns out, torture is not history. The IRCT network of torture rehabilitation clinics treated more than 100,000 victims of torture according to its last census. Amnesty recently reported that more than 140 countries around the world still use torture. And in many countries, police officers are ignorant about the fact that torture constitutes a crime under international law and humane alternatives to torture exist.
Torture is only used in war, in a few countries
There are constantly new cases of torture happening away from armed conflicts and war. As an example, police brutality or torture in detention are both serious problems in a great majority of countries. In fact, Amnesty International has in the past five years reported torture and abuse in more than 140 countries.
Torture victims are either criminals or terrorists
Anyone can be a victim of torture – children as well as adults, young as well as old, religious as well as atheists, intellectuals and the uneducated alike.
Nobody is immune, although members of a particular political, religious, ethnic group or minority are at higher risk of being targets of government-endorsed violence. Frequent victims include politicians, union leaders, journalists, health professionals, human rights defenders, people in detention or prison, members of ethnic minorities, and student leaders.
Another large group of victims are poor people. Poverty makes people vulnerable to abuses and leaves them without the ways and means of defending their rights.
Not all forms of torture are bad
Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person to obtain information, punish, intimidate or coerce is never justified. There is no such thing as one method being less harmful than the other.
All forms of torture are horrific violations of human rights – including beating, electric shocks, stretching, submersion, suffocation, burns, rape and sexual assault, isolation, threats, humiliation, mock executions, mock amputations, and witnessing the torture of others.
The consequences of torture — any torture — reach far beyond immediate pain and can leave long-term scars on the victims.
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.
Yesterday marked 13 years since the World Trade Center attacks on 11 September 2001, one of the worst terrorist attacks in history, killing 2,996 people and injuring over 6,000.
Every year 9/11 is, and will continue to be, remembered for the sadness of the day. Families lost their loved ones; the lives of many people collapsed with the towers; and the fabric of the city was changed forever.
But what should not be forgotten is the change 9/11 inspired in the realm of national security. The attacks prompted a refocus, not just on the security of airports and planes, but on the protection of a nation.
September 11th should also be remembered as the catalyst for change in national security and anti-terror thinking and practice. Efforts to stamp out terrorism across the globe escalated, not just with political rhetoric but also with military action.
All of this came as part of the so-called War on Terror, an anti-terrorist military-backed campaign primarily spearheaded by the United States and the United Kingdom in Afghanistan, initially to eliminate Al Qaeda but later becoming an umbrella term encompassing the spread of its scope across Iraq, northern Pakistan and other areas of the Middle East.
Although U.S. officials no longer use the term, this campaign still rages today. And with this comes torture. Since 9/11, terrorist attacks have risen and, as more suspects are detained, torture incidences have risen too.
The September 11 attacks and the War on Terror that followed led to the ill-treatment of many suspected terrorist detainees – something President Obama acknowledged by stating that the United States military and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) “crossed the line” in the post-9/11 context by torturing many suspects.
The upcoming CIA torture report, for example, details how suspects were intentionally tortured for information.
Leaks from the report, four-years in the making, show how the CIA misled policymakers about the inhumane nature of their torture techniques primarily at CIA ‘Black Sites’ by rebranding torture as ‘enhanced interrogation’. The seriousness of the torture allegations was then routinely downplayed to the media and politicians. The CIA also relied extensively on outside contractors, such as now-infamous psychologist James Mitchell, to devise horrific torture techniques designed to simply cause harm.
The Committee concluded, as noted back in July 2014, that the torture techniques were unnecessary and yielded “no critical intelligence on terror plots”.
The practices described in the CIA torture report were banned from 2009 alongside the closing of the Black Sites. Despite this, the CIA’s rampant torture campaign inflicted pain and suffering “to the point of death” in many cases, causing long-term damage to the victims which has yet to be addressed. Some of the victims even died from the torture.
While much of the blame for the human rights abuses has been placed on the Bush administration, Obama’s presidency has ensured a culture of impunity has prevailed. The lengthy political process to release this report has meant many victims have been forced to remain silent for years as their experiences have yet to be heard or believed. The continual leaking of different pieces of the CIA report also detracts focus from the overall picture: the U.S. is flagrantly using torture in its anti-terror arsenal yet those who commissioned the torture still remain untouched.
Also impunity will always be ensured all the time figureheads leading the torture programme are still in power. For example, the current CIA director, John Brennan, is still in office and was highly complicit with the torture focus under the Bush administration. Guards – and the administration as a whole – at camps such as Guantanamo Bay remain in place and functional, albeit scaled back.
Post-9/11 torture was not restricted to the CIA though and, as noted, the U.S. military played a large part.
While not strictly under the War on Terror banner, from 2003 to early 2004 U.S. Military Police personnel from the U.S. Army and the CIA committed, and photographed, human rights violations against prisoners held in the Abu Ghraib prison, Iraq.
The pictures are some of the most famous of the 21st century, stirring chilling recollections of a time when vigilantism – mainly perpetrated by outside contracted soldiers from the Blackwater company – ruled the conflict.
But the pictures revealed at the time were only a small batch. Now there is further pressure on the U.S. to disclose the full extent of its activities with one US judge calling on the administration to release the full batch of 2,000 pictures.
All this is the result of just one day in September 2001 – a horrifying, heartbreaking day which will forever remain in human memory as one of the worst attacks on a population.
But the activities following 9/11 gave state officials across the globe an excuse to torture. In many of these cases the perpetrators will never be brought to justice.
So while 9/11 is rightly marked by remembrance for the dead and the profound impact it had on America, take time to also remember those who suffered, and are still suffering, from torture perpetrated under the guise of national security.
Torture victims are victims of 9/11 too.
When Maryam Al-Khawaja announced her trip to visit Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja in Bahrain last week, following the recommencement of his hunger strike, all seemed well. The trip was to simply see how her father was faring.
Yet her assessment of his condition never came. In the morning of 30 August, Maryam posted a series of tweets on Twitter outlining how she was immediately detained on arrival with security forces claiming she is “not a Bahraini citizen”:
“I’m denied entry. I’m starting a water-only hunger strike. I won’t voluntarily leave. My only demand is to be let into my country.”
Since then Maryam has been posting regular updates on her situation, from her declaration of beginning a water-only hunger strike and the snippets of conversations she hears from guards who wish to deport her.
Now, five days after her detention, her Twitter account has changed. A third-party is writing the tweets for her; news is sparse; and the condition of her father, Abdulhadi, must be deteriorating.
Ill-treatment, arbitrary arrests and torture are no distant themes to Maryam, her family and her friends. Maryam and her colleagues – and those associated to those colleagues – have been continual targets for their role in supporting human rights in Bahrain through the criminalised Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR).
A long friend of the IRCT, Maryam has spoken in the past about the appalling human rights record of Bahrain, what the international community needs to do to recognise the abuses and the situation facing her family and friends on a daily basis.
The year 2011 marked the beginning of the now well-documented struggle for the Al-Khawajas. Following several years of banning from the Bahrain state, head of the BCHR Nabeel Rajab (himself only recently released from prison for his role in the centre) and Maryam began travelling the world to speak out about the situation in Bahrain, the vicious crackdowns on protestors and the torture which exists in the Bahrain prison network. It is a story Maryam knows all too well – her father, on hunger strike now, was arrested in April 2011 and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Maryam’s sister Zainab was then targeted and has been subjected to repeated arrest, long-term detention, harassment, and physical abuse, including facing ongoing charges in relation to calling for her father’s freedom. Zainab was released on bail in February 2014, after almost a year’s detention on the oft-cited charges of “insulting the King”, a charge which can lead to seven years imprisonment. Now seven months pregnant, Zainab faces trial again in October. If sentenced she could ultimately give birth inside prison.
Next on the arrest list was Maryam’s long-term friend and colleague Nabeel Rajab. In April 2012, amidst protests to cancel the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix, Nabeel was arrested and sentenced to prison for having “insulted” Bahraini authorities via Twitter – a landmark ruling at the time as social media dissent had not been punished quite so harshly.
It is this prevalent treatment which worries human rights organisations now. Maryam’s father has already undergone major surgery in the past to treat the torture he received in Bahraini jail. And as Maryam told World Without Torture last year, her sister has been a victim of continued harassment, threats and beatings during her time in jail also.
Right now, according to BCHR, Maryam is facing “charges of assault and battery against on-duty public employees during their performance of official duty,” alleging Maryam attacked a lieutenant and another policewoman and injured them when they asked her to hand over her mobile phone at the airport.
Her lawyer has been denied access to her, as have her family. She has been moved to the Isa Town women prison and placed with two convicted criminals.
There is a high degree of urgency in assuring the safety of Ms Al-Khawaja, particularly considering the abuse which her family has suffered in the past.
Maryam’s release must come now. The world is watching.
Amidst the CIA taking the central role as the perpetrator for the torture committed under the ‘War on Terror’, one particular question has been forgotten: what will happen to the people who actually designed the torture methods?
Recent spin and simplification lumps the CIA as the overwhelming perpetrator of all the torture against terror suspects. Without understating CIA’s role in this — CIA operatives mercilessly implemented the torture techniques documented today in the upcoming CIA torture report and through the continued allegations emerging from those victims who survived CIA ‘black sites’ in particular — it must be remembered that the network involved in the torture of suspects is far-reaching.
Behind the torture is a methodology, a design to break even the most resilient individual. Behind the design is calculated thought, professionally planned actions that inflict the maximum level of pain and suffering while minimising identifiable scars and traces.
And behind this thinking are doctors.
It has long been documented by a range of media outlets that US military doctors were complicit in the design of torture methods, clearly violating their ethical, medical and legal codes as health practitioners.
A report from the Taskforce on Preserving Medical Professionalism in November 2013 states that after 9/11, health professionals aligned with the military and intelligences authorities participated in the production and implementation of “cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment and torture of detainees”.
Yet many of these doctors will simply never face trial. Regardless of whether doctors were coerced or tricked into the CIA’s ‘enhanced interrogation’ processes, justice still needs to be served.
It’s a concern echoed by Vincent Iacopino, Senior Medical Advisor for Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and member of IRCT’s Independent Forensic Expert Group, in a recent letter to the Editor of the New York Times.
“Before lawyers wrote memos distorting the definition of torture, psychologists worked in concert with interrogators to develop methods intended to exploit the vulnerabilities of detainees and to inflict physical and mental pain,” says Mr Iacopino in the letter.
He continues: “As detainees suffered — and in some cases, died — health professionals routinely failed to report, document or stop the abuse.”
In doing so, they betrayed the core ethical principle of health professionals: do no harm. They also did not question their role. Apathy is apparent in the instance of US psychologist James Mitchell, who was instrumental in designing the torture techniques. Speaking in April 2014 he said the following:
“I’m just a guy who got asked to do something for his country by people at the highest level of government, and I did the best that I could.” (quoted in Russia Today)
It is the Milgrim experiment CIA-style: the infamous study which showed people are far more likely to inflict pain on another human being if someone in perceived higher authority delivers the orders.
This is wrong and shocking. The doctors who are meant to heal contributed to the harm.
When the truth about the CIA torture methods comes to light, hopefully perpetrators will be brought to justice. Those who inflicted the pain must be punished for their crimes and victims, who are still alive, should be directed to the appropriate channels of rehabilitation and redress.
Yet punishment needs to extend beyond those ordering the torture and those following the orders. Behind the programme against human rights are doctors who designed the methods. These people are perpetrators too.
The United States military is not properly investigating civilian torture and deaths in Afghanistan leading to the human cost of the conflict being “compounded by injustice”, a damning Amnesty International report claims.
The report, entitled ‘Left in the Dark’, highlights 10 case studies alongside statistics and investigative pieces showing the full extent to which Afghan families are being “left in the dark about the full circumstances and legality of their relatives’ deaths.”
The 10 cases covered in the report from 2009 to 2013 saw the deaths of 140 civilians through US military operations. Amnesty claim the majority of family members interviewed said they had not been debriefed on the deaths by US military investigators.
Two of the cases – one involving a special operations forces raid on a house in Khataba village, Paktia province, in 2010, and another involving enforced disappearances, torture, and killings in Wardak province from November 2012 to February 2013 – provide “compelling evidence of war crimes,” the report says.
Last November Rolling Stone published a feature analysing the torture and subsequent deaths of civilians in Wardak Province, perpetrated by a special forces group dubbed ‘The A-Team’ who tortured civilians with beatings, strangulation, solitary confinement and even torture designed to restrict urination.
According to the Amnesty report, torture was inflicted on detainees and civilians were threatened with torture in order to intimidate them. The methods used are similar to those used in CIA ‘Black Sites’.
While the report notes there have been improvements in the transparency of civilians deaths, most incidents involve airstrikes and night raids, two tactics openly criticised in he past.
The report concludes deaths and torture were not properly investigated, giving families false information regarding the fate of their loved ones, and that current investigations into human rights abuses are slow and ineffective.
It is another blow to the US whose human rights record is being intensively scrutinised not just for allegations of torture in Afghanistan, but also the conduct of the CIA interrogation officials and potential involvement of US forces alongside the UK military in alleged torture in Iraq.
What Amnesty’s report shows is that, once again, the US apathy to the torture carried out amidst its ranks is systematic and seemingly unrelenting. It is not just the torture that is the problem – the problem is also the impunity generated by the ineffectiveness, or sheer lack of, investigations and justice processes.
The US often preaches assurance and respect of human rights obligations by other nations, yet rarely does its analysis turn itself inwards. Yet with all of these recent controversies, the pressure is now truly on the US to reconsider its position and implementation of human rights.
And quite rightly so.
In October 2013 we wrote a piece commenting on the decision of the Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel apologising on behalf of now-infamous Jon Burge, an ex-police commander and celebrated war veteran sentenced to four-years in prison for a campaign of racism and torture in 1970s’ and 1980s’ Chicago.
Mr Burge was sentenced in 2011 to four-years in prison for lying under questioning when the allegations of torture were brought against him, allegations which he faced no charges for following his dismissal from the police in 1993.
Yet as more and more evidence came to light, it appeared Burge had indeed spearheaded a campaign of torture which affected over 200 people. Most of these survivors have since been awarded compensation but Burge was not charged for these crimes – he was charged for lying about them, not committing them.
But today it is not only the victims who are receiving money – Jon Burge is too.
Despite earning his publicly-funded pension entitlement during his notorious near two decade rule as police commander, Jon Burge, a convicted felon, will be able to receive his $3,000-a-month pension.
At a recent police pension board meeting, a tied vote of 4-4 assured that Mr Burge will be able to claim his pension upon release. As the Chicago Sun-Times notes:
Half of the board members actually argued that his 2010 conviction for lying about torturing suspects was not connected to his police job because the crime for which he was convicted — lying — came after he was no longer a cop. We’re sure that’s not how it looked to the men who were beaten, put through mock executions and shocked on their genitals by Burge and his midnight crew in the 1970s and 1980s.
This decision adds another example of impunity for the crimes of torture in the US and sends a negative message to the victims and to the human rights groups who have condemned the news. Many of the victims have yet to receive full reparations or rehabilitation and this move shows that full condemnation of a torturer is still a long way off.
And for the US – who could be a powerful anti-torture advocate – rulings such as this are incredibly worrying.
For more information on the Jon Burge case – including the decision by the Chicago Mayor to apologise on his behalf – click this link for our previous blog summarising the story.
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
“…The soldiers took turns to hold her or rape her. When she tried to resist they beat her and forced her harder … They tried to tie her legs with anything they could lay hands on to separate her legs…”
– Excerpt from medico-legal report by Freedom from Torture doctor.
It is a shocking description, but sadly one all too common to many women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). According to a report from IRCT member Freedom from Torture, rape is routinely used as a weapon of torture to prevent women from supporting human rights, politics, or even their high-ranking positions in society.
The report – Rape as torture in the DRC: Sexual violence beyond the conflict zone – uses extracts from 34 medical assessments from women aged 21 to 60 to show the world what is happening today in the DRC – a country which is hypocritically one of the first signatories to the new International Protocol on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, which is launched by the UK Government next week.
The women in the report, all of whom remain anonymous, come from a variety of backgrounds, from mothers to university graduates, from doctors to cooks. But the women have one thing in common: they were targeted because of their political involvement as members or supporters of opposition groups, or women’s rights organisations
The activities that led to their arrests included storing and distributing leaflets, banners and tee-shirts and attending meetings and demonstrations. In one story, Jomaphie (not her real name) was arrested by uniformed soldiers while attending a political event in the capital, Kinshasa. She was detained with many others for four days in a small room before being transferred to detention elsewhere.
Men and women were held together for the first night, during which they were given no food or water. Women were removed repeatedly from the room and raped by different soldiers and were beaten when they attempted to resist. The men were separated after the first night but the women remained in the same room for three more nights, during which time they were given biscuits and water and continued to be raped and beaten repeatedly. After this they were transferred from the airport to prison.
Conditions of detention
The women were all arrested by state actors – soldiers, police or members of the security services – and mostly they were detained in state security facilities. They were frequently mistreated during arrest and en route to detention. They described being beaten, hit with rifle butts, rubber truncheons and belts, being restrained face down in the back of a truck and being kicked and stamped on, slapped and punched.
There was no proper judicial process following any arrest and the women had no access to any legal advice or representation. The vast majority were allowed no communication with friends or family.
The conditions in which they were held were foul and unhygienic; with little light or air, no sanitation and without adequate food and water. Women held in solitary confinement described being detained alone in cells as small as one metre square in which they were either unable, or barely able, to lie down. Others were crowded into small cells with up to 20 other people.
The report lists horrors unimaginable to many, but ones which are unfortunately very real indeed. But perhaps the most shocking fact is that the DRC is a signatory of both the UNCAT (United Nations Convention Against Torture) and the OPCAT (Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture) – both legally binding protocols which are meant to ensure that torture is forbidden, and that survivors of torture can seek adequate redress for torture as well as support and assistance to end impunity.
Freedom from Torture has been providing support to people tortured in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) since 1985, and in 2013, 111 survivors of torture from the DRC used our services. The findings of Freedom from Torture suggest that as a matter of urgency the DRC and the international community should be pursuing a more joined-up approach to tackling sexual violence by recognising the links between rape, sexual violence and torture.