Archive for category Justice
Every day thousands of Syrian refugees pour over the borders of Syria and into nearby countries such as Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon. For many the journey is tough – in fleeing their anxieties in war-torn Syria they often encounter poverty, torture and death.
But for one family, the support they received from IRCT member Centre for Torture Victims (CVT) allowed them to tell their story. Here CVT recount their journey through rehabilitation.
The family, who wish to remain anonymous, left behind a comfortable life in Syria because they were afraid for their lives in the Syrian conflict. Their anxieties came from events they all experienced. The children were terrified by almost everything – the noise from planes, fireworks, and even people. They never went outside to play with other children for fear of being hurt. The parents too were scared – scared for their safety, the safety of their home and the safety of their family.
While the parents remained strong, both had depression and sleeping difficulties. Both were witness to some of the most harrowing scenes in Syria, including violent home searches.
Their small home was destroyed and, to save themselves, the family sought refuge in Jordan. It was to be a move leaving them with no money or shelter. One meal a day between the family of four was all they had.
When the family came to the CVT office, the parents only asked for help for their children. However it was evident that the entire family needed help.
After counselling both the parents and children, their anxieties began to disappear. But it was not until later on in this therapy when the father shared a frightening story he had never told anyone before. He shared an event where he almost lost his life. This experience caused all his physical and emotional symptoms.
In the family home in Syria, government soldiers entered one day and began searching the house. The family were threatened and terrorised before the father was ordered to leave the home. Outside with the soldiers, the father was threatened with death.
Different methods were discussed in front of him and, ultimately, his life was spared. When he returned inside the house the father stayed silent about his experience, and has suffered from nightmares and guilt ever since.
But the support from CVT helped these feelings subside. While these experiences may never be forgotten, the father said that the family felt valued and worthy – something they had not felt for a long time.
Soon the children began to laugh again. They began to play again and this, in turn, eased the anxieties the parents felt.
CVT continues to provide support for the family with counselling. Wounds take time to heal but, thanks to CVT support, this family is able to begin regaining control of their lives.
Rehabilitation, even in a few sessions, can lift the shadow of depression that torture brings.
Story edited by Ashley Scrace, Communications Officer with the IRCT. The original story was written by Laura Takacs and Adrienne Carter, psychotherapist/trainers with CVT Jordan – part of a team of psychotherapists, psychosocial counselors, physiotherapists, social workers and outreach staff and volunteers who travel to refugees unable to access the CVT centre.
To enact our vision of a world without torture, the torture rehabilitation movement is led by the human rights defenders on the front lines – figures who may hail from the medical field, the legal field, and right through to activists and anti-torture advocates.
But the core voice from all this work comes from the survivors of torture and the families of the victims. Guided by their experiences – and by providing a space for their experiences — the IRCT methodology of holistic rehabilitation can flourish.
So today we are launching a new space to share their stories and amplify their voices. A new Testimonies Wall will serve as a platform for survivors of torture, their families, and the global torture fighters to speak out against torture with the ultimate aim of ending torture across the globe.
Fourteen stories launch the wall, including two new in-depth features with two survivors of torture from very different locations.
The first is Veli Sacilik whose harrowing story of a prison siege in Turkey is still very much in the European spotlight today. After losing an arm in the siege and subsequent torture, Veli and his fellow inmates have gone on to campaign to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for compensation and justice in their disturbing, shocking case. Sadly, now over a decade later, the case for compensation and justice is still being deliberated, but Veli’s continual campaigning is not only yielding results but is demonstrating the violence that exists in the Turkish prison network.
The second story comes from Carmen Kcomt, a former judge in Peru who was met with violent harassment and intimidation when trying to rightly expose the paternity of a young girl revealed to be the secret daughter of the future president of Peru. Carmen boldly applied the law and listened to her legal training at all times, despite sustained intimidation and torture both physically and mentally from a variety of sources. It is a story of exposing the truth, escaping fear and rebuilding a life in a new country.
The testimonies page will be updated with new stories over time so check back for these unique and insightful insights into torture, rehabilitation and justice.
The fight to find safety away from persecution and torture is tough enough – every year war and conflict, together with ethnic, religious and cultural persecution, force millions of people to flee their home country to lands often unknown other than in name. Fleeing the homeland is not so much a choice but a necessity for survival.
So imagine, after all the struggles to ensure security, being deported back to the country where you were tortured. That’s the reality for 11 Congolese refugees who, until last month, were residing in Tees Valley, north-east England, to escape their torturers.
In the ‘Unsafe Return 2’ report, from UK human rights charity Justice First, evidence suggests 11 out of 15 Congolese refugees whom the charity tracked between November 2011 and September 2013 are again facing persecution in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) after UK authorities took the decision to deport them.
It is feared that three out of the 11 deportees have been killed following detention and ill-treatment at the hands of the Congolese authorities.
The case is another which highlights the urgent need for greater safeguards for refugees and asylum seekers to prevent torture from reoccurring, assuring safety and security from their perhaps tormented past.
Many refugees want to return to their home yet many cannot. It is the responsibility of nations providing asylum to rehabilitate torture victims and to safeguard them from ever returning to places where they face, as the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees defines, “a well-founded fear of being persecuted”.
Over the past several years, the IRCT has undertaken interventions in support of victims of torture and trauma among refugee and internally displaced populations. For example, the PROTECT-ABLE project has trained doctors, member centres have offered rehabilitation services to torture survivors in refugee camps and assisted local health professionals to conduct psychosocial needs assessments of internally displaced persons across the world.
However, more needs to be done to highlight the special needs of asylum seekers and refugees, so they can have their full case heard and can receive proper protection and rehabilitation from torture.
Perhaps most worryingly is this, and many other heavy-handed approaches to asylum seekers in the UK, shows how flawed the UK asylum system may be.
Written by Ashley Scrace, Communications Officer at the IRCT in Copenhagen
Inspired by the brilliant but appalling UN Women ad campaign we’ve decided to find out what Google, or its infamous algorithm, says about torture.
Type “torture is…” or “torture should…” and the results, calculated after a few milliseconds, are abysmal yet unsurprising – the world is still divided. “Torture is justified” and “torture should be legal” are followed by “torture is wrong” and “torture should be banned.” Fortunately, “torture is ineffective” comes right before “torture is good”.
What does the algorithm tell us about specific methods of torture? Believe it or not, “waterboarding is baptizing terrorists with freedom”. Absurdities aside, the two top results, again, were predictable: “waterboarding isn’t torture” comes right before “waterboarding is torture.”
We know very well that data on torture is difficult to get, and few polls measure the public opinion toward torture. Although Google’s autocomplete isn’t a perfect picture of the reality it scarily hints to it.
In an article published earlier this year about sympathies towards torture in the United States, Amy Zegart writes:
“Americans are significantly more pro-torture now than during the Bush years. In 2007, 27 percent of Americans surveyed in a Rasmussen poll said the United States should torture prisoners captured in the war against terrorism. In an August 2012 YouGov national poll I commissioned, 41 percent said they approved of torture, a gain of 14 points.”
The poll results are not too distant from the algorithm’s result. One negative result followed one positive shows that public opinion is highly polarised. As explained by Arwa Mahdawi in the Guardian, Google’s autocomplete feature anticipates what you’re looking for, based on what other people have searched for in the past.
She also explains that, “autocomplete suggestions differ according to variables such as region and time, but there tends to be a degree of consistency across results.” Try it out. Then let us know what’s like in your part of the world.
Amidst the Copenhagen bustle sits 26-year-old Bahraini human rights defender Maryam al-Khawaja who, on the face of it, appears to be oblivious to her anxieties. These are perhaps the only two minutes to relax from her work at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.
Maryam has just been discussing her father, prominent human rights defender Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who has been imprisoned since April 2011 for participating in the pro-democracy protests which swept the nation of Bahrain.
Tortured ever since – including beatings so severe he underwent urgent surgery to reconstruct his jaw in 2011 – Abdulhadi’s case looks increasingly desperate. But Maryam manages to distance herself from this well.
“It is another case indicative of the repression exercised by the rulers of Bahrain,” she says flippantly. “In 2011, I wrote a report about a man who had been beaten to the point that no one recognised him.
“I was told at the end of the report that the man who had been tortured was my father. My initial reaction was not to break down but to finish the report. There are so many other torture cases and personalising them does not help my work. You need to normalise it. In my head, most of the time my father is not even in prison.”
But the fact is that along with thousands of other pro-democracy protestors, Maryam’s father, and sister Zainab, wallow in the horrifying conditions of Bahraini prison with little chance of a fair trial or basic human rights.
“There is torture in the prisons,” says Maryam. “The international community focus so much on improving conditions for prisoners when, in reality, these political prisoners should not be detained in the first place. Their release should be called on and they should have assured prison qualities until that point.”
The ‘failed’ revolution?
Yet pressure on the ruling family of Bahrain to accept their shameful human rights record is something which Maryam cynically believes will not be applied by the international community. “People seem to assume that somehow the Bahrain revolution failed but I do not think it is fair to assess the revolution of Bahrain as a ‘failed’ revolution,” she says. “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.”
We’re talking with each other in the same week that Syria has dominated the news – a humanitarian crisis which has seen millions of people seek refuge in nearby countries.
In this field of vision, Bahrain has become lost. The revolutionary protests which screened all over the world almost three years ago in early 2011 seem long forgotten.
“Bahrain is such a controlled country that now the protests are rarely seen. People are fearful that if they go to the wrong street, or even to the shops in their area, they will be arrested, tear gassed, tortured and so on. They therefore do not have the safety, inclination or room to go into the streets and protest like you would perhaps see elsewhere. And that’s one reason why it does not get coverage. The ruling family of Bahrain know this.”
The Bahraini royal family, the House of Al Khalifa, assumed power approximately 230 years ago and have yet to relinquish it. Indeed half of the current Parliament in Bahrain are aligned to the family and the country’s only unelected Prime Minister, who has been in his position for 43 years, is related to the family also, being the uncle to the current self-declared king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.
It is this monopolised rule which led to the protests in April 2011 – protests which have, in fact, been occurring regularly since the 1920s’ and before.
In the 1950s’ a group called Intifadat al-Haya’a, led by the religious leaders of both the Sunni and Shia communities, started an uprising for civil rights. At this time Bahrain was still a British protectorate so with the help of the British the Bahraini regime crushed this opposition and arrested all of the leading figures..
“The Al Khalifa family knew that if the Sunni and Shia communities stayed united it could spell the end of their rule,” explains Maryam. “So since the 1950s’ the family has been focusing their attention on marginalizing the majority of the country, the Shia community, thereby sidelining their biggest threat. They created this ‘us and them’ fashion through labeling the Shia community more and more, to make it impossible for them to integrate with the Sunni community and, as such, crush any uprising. This is not saying that Sunnis benefit entirely from the Bahrain rulers, because they do not. But it is just one move into the ruling party’s idea to change the demographic of the country so it is majority Sunni rather than Shia.”
This sectarianism is, according to Maryam, just another tool of gaining control by the royal family.
“The family see everyone as an enemy yet portray to Western media that there is a sectarian problem, not a problem between the rulers and the people,” she says.
“It is simply not true. Bahrain is not a sectarian problem. It’s a human rights problem. People, no matter who they are, have no room for freedom of expression, right to safety and so on. People are beaten, tortured and detained on a mass scale – and why? All because they want to exercise their human rights.”
But what can be done to bring change in Bahrain and, in the first instance, call the human rights record of the Al Khalifa family to attention?
“You do not need military feet on the ground,” states Maryam. “What you need is pressure on the Bahraini government to accept the evidence we already have, in relation to sanctions against individuals like visa rejections, torture documentation and so on. What you need is for the countries who claim that they promote human rights and democracy to uphold these values – not among their enemies, but among their friends. Bahrain is a friend which is not upholding basic human values, but that would be an embarrassing thing to admit.
“At least in Egypt there is a sphere to go out on the streets and protest. But in Bahrain, public space is controlled in a suffocating manner . In that sense it is not really similar to other protests in the Middle East and is actually more similar to Rwanda – not that there will be a genocide, but there will come a time when something which as been silently bubbling will explode into the open. There is absolutely no room for expression, for freedom of speech or to manoeuvre.”
Fittingly, in the same way I misinterpreted the calmness in Maryam at the coffee shop, it seems Bahrain has a hidden undercurrent of turmoil.
“Everything seems alright and as if changes have been made. But there is always something happening underneath [in Bahrain],” says Maryam. “Distancing ourselves from this turmoil only makes it worse. The time is now for the international community to apply pressure on Bahrain and bring the human rights abuses to light.”
Written by Ashley Scrace, Communications Officer at the IRCT
To mark this year’s UN International Day for the Eradication of Poverty on 17 October, UK-based torture rehabilitation charity Freedom From Torture hosted a special one-off online video debate with the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Professor Juan Méndez, and the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona.
Anchored by Kolbassia Haoussou, Co-ordinator of the Survivors Speak OUT network, the debate is the first time the two UN global human rights leaders have ever come together to discuss the issues of poverty and torture.
The debate focused on three questions submitted via Twitter users but one message came out of all the answers – more can be done to break the cycle of torture and poverty.
“First and foremost it is everybody’s responsibility to ensure that rehabilitation services are provided,” says UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona.
“States need to realise their obligations under the convention against torture and various groups and NGOs currently assisting victims of torture need to be allowed by states to complete their work,” she adds.
UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Professor Juan Méndez, believes more needs to be done by governments and groups to facilitate the needs of torture victims. He says: “The fact is that all torture makes a person poorer. In this situation you are making an already poor person poorer. This should compel us to make even greater efforts to help them.
“Particular people in the poverty bracket are asylum seekers and refugees. Their social standing often means they cannot access the services they need, and this is wrong. Rehabilitation services should be the obligation of any state including those where a torture victim resides, regardless of immigration status.”
The debate saw much involvement from the public and even attracted participation from Jon Snow, news anchor at the UK’s Channel 4 news, who asked the question of whether states are aware of their obligations to ensure human rights and rehabilitation to torture victims.
“I think many states do, but what we’re having to be careful of at the moment is that states are not using financial crisis as excuse to cut support and protection for survivors,” says Ms Carmona.
“Rehabilitation services are not a drain on finances and there are plenty of ways to offer rehabilitation if those services are allowed to function. There are people who simply seem to have no access to these services. Living in poverty is not only about lack of income. It’s really a lack of human capabilities and lack of power.”
The fact remains – people in poverty are seen as easily exploitable and unable to defend seek justice for their treatment. It is a vicious cycle as often the impoverished position which leads a person to torture is also often the result of torture.
But the cycle can be broken says Ms Carmona: “What type of society we want to live in? It is everyone’s responsibility – governments, groups and the public – to ensure states comply with their international legal and ethical obligations.”
You can see World Without Torture’s coverage of the debate by going to our Twitter page: @withouttorture
For more information on poverty and torture you can read Freedom From Torture’s latest report, the ‘Poverty Barrier’, by clicking the link.
‘Sorry’ is such a short word but has so many long and deep meanings attached to it. You can apologise for an argument, a disagreement, an accident perhaps. But when it comes to torture, sorry is not enough – and never should it be accepted as enough.
Only a couple of weeks ago the Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, apologised for the decades of unbridled abuse and torture towards black suspects under the watch of Police Commander Jon Burge.
The torture and racism, which was rife for a period of almost 20 years, began in 1972 when celebrated Vietnam veteran Burge was elected as the new tough police commander for the Chicago Police Department.
Almost immediately after his appointment, allegations of torture began to emerge, with many focusing on being tortured to secure confessions. Through the 70s’ and 80s’ further allegations arose, most notably following the killing of a police officer in Chicago in February 1982, where black suspects were rounded up and handcuffed to stationary objects for long periods of time, pets were killed in front of their owners and children were held at gunpoint while questioned.
Allegations of torture under Burge’s rule continued to grow. Today, there have been over 200 registered complaints of torture, many of which are still being compensated. So far $85 million has been paid in compensation but many cases are still awaiting outcome.
Burge was dismissed from the police in 1993 and faced no charges for his allegations. However, in 2011, he was sentenced to four years in prison for lying under questioning when the allegations were brought against him.
In this respect, justice has been served in this case to some extent – the main head of this torturous movement has been made to face the facts. But other than a single change at the top and an apology, changes in this case – and many others – are rarely meaningful and longstanding.
In any case of torture there needs to be processes in place to ensure that the perpetrators face full and open legal inquiries – not just the figurehead of torture, but those who actually delivered the torture in person.
In this vein there need to be routes in place for victims to seek justice in the first instance. Victims and perpetrators need to know that, whatever their story, torture is wrong in every instance. Torture is used to extract information, to prevent the flow of information, to torment, to persuade, to shock, to damage someone’s livelihood, or simply to establish a message. It can happen to anyone in any country regardless of political, religious or social sympathies. Torture is wrong and every victim of torture needs to be granted simple, effective routes to pursue justice, truth and rehabilitation.
Torture victims also need rehabilitation – they need to be notified that services exist to help them develop their lives and they need to be allowed to use these services to ensure they can move forward. No one should suffer at all for any length of time, let alone throughout their life.
Simply apologising for wrongs is not enough. Words only mean so much.
Strong words must be followed up with strong actions. While an expression of sorrow may well be a legitimate feeling, this does not mean the torture is ‘solved’ or forgotten. There are still underlying issues which need addressing which can only be addressed fully through the pursuit of justice and reform.
If you define Britain by its oft lauded stereotypes, one may assume a peaceful, upstanding nation which obeys rules, regulations and notions of fair play. Yet for 30 years Ian Cobain has dedicated his life to exposing the secrets, the lies, the inconvenient truths often buried deep beneath a British façade.
An investigative journalist with the Guardian newspaper, his reports into the UK’s counter-terrorism practices since 9/11 have won a number of major awards including the Martha Gellhorn Prize and the Paul Foot Award for investigative journalism, as well as a range of Amnesty International awards.
In 2012 Ian published his first book, Cruel Britannia, which analysed how the British government has repeatedly and systematically resorted to torture, through years of British colonial rule, to World War Two and to the War on Terror.
And while we may not like to think of it, torture is something which Ian believes is still practiced by the UK and other Western countries often perceived to be upholding human rights.
“I’m still shocked by some of the matters I discover. But I’m no longer surprised,” says Ian.
“After 9/11, I knew by January 2002 that the US was mistreating its prisoners. Photographs showing shackled men, in gloves, ear defenders and blacked-out goggles, being dragged across the ground at Guantanamo, were published by the US military. That was a pretty good clue [that torture of prisoners was happening].
“The same month, while I was in Kabul, Red Cross officials told me that prisoners were being tortured at Kandahar. I was terribly shocked. The British government and its intelligence agencies claim they didn’t discover this for years. What nonsense.”
A report on the condition of detainees in 2012, ten years after Ian learned of torture in Kandahar, still lists the southern city in Afghanistan as one of the areas where detained individuals are routinely mistreated by officials.
“At the time it was difficult to comprehend that the British government would draw up policies that resulted in the torture, but that’s what happened,” Ian explains.
“It took me a while longer to understand the level of UK support and participation in the rendition programme. More time made me realise that the UK was complicit in kidnappings and torture during operations in which the US barely played any part.”
For Ian, the ill-treatment by the UK of those in detention, particularly in situations of conflict, is nothing new.
“British military processed and mistreated their prisoners in Northern Ireland in 1971 in precisely the same way that another generation of the British military was doing it in Basra in 2003,” says Ian.
“Authorities use it to intimidate, to coerce, to humiliate, to extract information, or to obtain so-called confessions. But it also creates reservoirs of hatred that don’t run dry for generations. And nobody can quite predict what will flow from those reservoirs.”
Hostility though is something that Ian has felt from authoritative figures, many of whom try to deter his work and the work of human rights defenders across the globe.
“Some people are hostile, but I don’t really care. I’ve been threatened once or twice, by people in ‘authority’, but I’m not in any danger,” he says.
Documenting and exposing torture is a sensitive issue for everyone involved. While the journalist or human rights activist exposing a case of torture might be in danger of reprisals, the survivor risks that and risks re-traumatisation by retelling the experience. However, documentation enables victims to prove the veracity of their allegations and thus increases the pressure on perpetrators to fulfill their obligations under international law. Torture is hardly a positive representation of a group or a country, particularly one like the UK.
Rehabilitating victims of torture, helping them recover from the trauma and become advocates for justice and truth, is one pivotal way to change views on torture in everyone’s minds.
“A few prosecutions of people in powerful positions might concentrate the minds of the next generation,” Ian adds.
There have been approximately 800 cases of alleged torture brought before Israel’s Attorney General. Not one has resulted in an investigation.
“The government fears that people will say that they were authorised to commit torture,” Dr Ishai Menuchin, executive director of Public Committee against Torture (PCATI). “That is why they are not allowing the investigations”
Yet there clearly is torture committed in Israel, which is both antidemocratic and a violation of international law, explains Louis Frankenthaler, Development & International Outreach Director at PCATI.
I sat with Louis and Ishai recently and asked them to explain, well, simply what they do. I already knew that PCATI coordinates a project in which the IRCT provides training on how to conduct proper forensic examination in cases alleging torture. However, I was unfamiliar with other aspects of their work
PCATI is a legal and advocacy organisation that has put forth the majority of the 800 torture claims against the state. In addition to their direct legal claims against Israel, they have pursued social change through both traditional and vanguard means, explains Louis.
“The vast majority of victims of torture are Palestinians under occupation,” says Frankenthaler.
To bring about social change, they try to build the critical skills in Israeli youth by working with high school education programmes and teachers. Further, they produce research publications and reports to disseminate to the public and media, such as Doctoring the Evidence in 2011, which chronicled medical practitioners involvement in torture and ill-treatment.
Then there are the more “vanguard approaches,” as Louis describes, to force the public to confront the reality that individuals are being tortured in Israeli detention facilities.
For example, at a recent public film screening event in Jerusalem, PCATI asked around 10 youth volunteers to be handcuffed and “interrogated” in the street near the entrance.
“People just want to drink some wine and watch a Woody Allen film, and then they saw this scene on the street,” Ishai says. “We asked them, ‘How does it feel to know that just 100 meters away, people are being tortured?’ They don’t want to know what we are doing. They don’t like to think that this is their society.”
The tactics are useful to get a dialogue going, to confront the pervasive attitudes in Israel that torture is only used again “terrorists”.
“People other the victims,” says Louis. “They think of them as terrorists because that is how the authorities define them… as suspects, as ‘wanted’ as….”
Recent changes to the appeals system have the chance to push this dialogue further – to bring about a full, formal and transparent investigation into a case of alleged torture. While the chances of that have historically been rather grim, Ishai says, he remains cynical, yet optimistic. Just last year, the Attorney General changed the complaints investigations system. Rather than led by a member of the Israel Security Agency (ISA), also known as Shin Bet, a civilian investigator will lead the appeals process. Ishai adds, “Yet we are waiting for this to become fully operative”.
But how do you uncover a policy that authorizes torture of others? Louis and Ishai agree that the goal now is to create such a depth of evidence and material presented to the appeals process, such as forensic documentation of torture, that the courts will have to pursue an investigation. And PCATI continues to bring forth cases – 35 new cases thus far,; 22 appeals cases in just one month.
“If just one case goes through, we expect that officials will say they were authorised to torture,” says Ishai. “We just need one case in a formal and open investigation.”
By Tessa, IRCT Communications
Working in the Middle East was always an ambition for 24-year-old journalist Tom Rollins. The region is a far cry from home in the north-east of England but that did not deter him from seizing an opportunity to live and work in Cairo.
He braced himself for a considerable change of life, coincidentally at a time when Egypt was on the cusp of even greater change with President Mohamed Morsi gradually becoming ousted after months of intense protests. But since arriving in Egypt, Tom has witnessed injustices, arrests and protests at a rate he could not anticipate.
“I arrived in Cairo around a fortnight before the June 30 protests,” says Tom. “The day before I flew to Cairo I was sat in Hyde Park, London, speaking to an Egyptian-Saudi couple about Egypt, about Tamarod [the grassroots movement founded in opposition to President Morsi] and what might happen.
“They said things would become messy again and I should be careful, but that was it, really. It seemed a long way off, I suppose.”
The Egyptian political and social landscape altered almost immediately after Tom’s arrival. July saw the military oust President Morsi and counter-protests from the Muslim Brotherhood and pro-Morsi demonstrators. Since the summer, Tom has witnessed protests from all sides and heavy-handed crackdowns on protestors, leading to thousands of deaths and arrests.
“When I arrived, there was a president in power that isn’t there now,” Tom says wryly. “A lot has changed.”
“With Morsi gone, Egypt became more violent, polarised and difficult to work out. There was that period of intense violence with around 2,000 dead – which reached its peak with the dispersals and then Ramses Square and the Fath mosque siege – but even though that’s dissipated more or less, the threat hasn’t gone.
“The protests and arrests have become routine now. I think 2011 [the year of the revolution and when protests in Egypt subsequently rallied against military rule] changed a lot of young people’s view of the world, particularly around what street politics could achieve – in Egypt and everywhere else,” he says.
“But now ‘the Egyptian revolution’ is being largely defined by those in power – army and police officers and government technocrats and ministers, some of them Mubarak-era officials at that. This is problematic.”
What concerns Tom is the level of repression exercised by the army, particularly against those who are critical of their actions, and the lack of transparency surrounding arrests. Without this clarity there can be no safeguards against unlawful detention or torture.
Just one example concerns the case of Haitham Mohamadeen, a labour lawyer and RevSoc activist who works with the IRCT member centre El Nadeem, who was arrested while travelling to Suez to represent clients there. Haitham was seized at an army checkpoint while travelling on a bus. His briefcase was taken and he was held for two days at a nearby police station, with little indication as to what he was being investigated for.
After much confusion, Haitham was released but charged with supposed crimes including “membership of a secret organisation” and carrying out activism “through terrorist means”, both of which have been rejected.
Tom explains: “One of the problems is transparency. We’re told day by day that so many people have been arrested for such and such crimes. But who are these people – Muslim Brotherhood members or Morsi supporters? Or are these just increasingly politicized arrests under the pretext of security and counter-terrorism?
“If someone is arrested at the moment, with that counter-terror narrative in effect, there’s a chance the system is just going to eat them up,” says Tom.
“Another problem is the system of military trials. Civilians (and journalists) are charged with annoying or insulting the army in some way, due process is ignored and justice is not served. We’re seeing that again this time round.”
But what is next for the political and social landscape of Egypt – will detention and violence cool, or will groups escalate?
“Islamists will continue to be marginalised as the government follows its roadmap to the elections next year. It is also particularly worrying that activists are being intimidated, because it suggests rule could become more repressive still.
“But there are excellent independent journalists in Egypt who are chronicling what is happening here. I think it will become more interesting now that Egypt is generally old news internationally. These journalists have a tough time, but they’ll be the ones testing the new regime and holding it to account.”
All pictures used with permission from ©Tom Rollins