Archive for category Middle East North Africa
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.
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
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.
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
The Middle East is in focus. According to the UNHCR, more than 1,7 million refugees from Syria alone are pouring into other countries in the region; Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and Turkey are all receiving hundreds of thousands of refugees, mostly women and children arriving with “little more than the clothes on their backs.”
The Middle East is also the focus of the ongoing Global Conference on the Right to Rehabilitation, a two-day gathering of civil society, government representatives and academics, co-organized by the IRCT and Restart. Here in Beirut, Lebanon, we heard the voices of those behind the very organisations in the region that are receiving those refugees. And they are struggling.
Lebanon was at the centre of the first day’s final session, where representatives of the Ministries of Public Health, Justice and Interior presented their views and strategies to fight and prevent torture. Local rehabilitation centres welcomed the positive and collaborative approach of the State representatives but “the reality is much worse,” said one participant from Lebanon’s Khiam centre, an IRCT member.
That reality was, in fact, right outside the conference room. The day before, as we drove to Restart Centre for a brief visit, we could see from our cab window the faces of the Syrian refugees right there, seemingly settled on the city’s sidewalks. Beirut alone must deal with more than 100,000 Syrian refugees currently living in the city, mostly in the poorest areas without safe housing or running water.
Our visit to Restart, though, gave us hope. The centre, which works in close collaboration with other civil society organisations and the government, has been running a project directed at Syrian refugees since January. The centre’s young but highly qualified and determined team is doing what they can to cope with the problem, even if that means using unorthodox solutions.
“We’ve built a relationship with Tripoli prison guards. Due to the lack of human resources at the prison, some of the older prisoners protect us while we visit the facilities,” said Ms Eliane Arida, a psychotherapist at Restart.
Although the Conference takes place in Lebanon, it doesn’t mean lessons can’t be taken to other parts of the world. Mr Peter Cum Che Mebang, Executive Director at the Trauma Centre Cameroon, is taking some ideas back on how to get the government involved in the rehabilitation work.
“Here you see the Ministry of Interior declaring publicly that there is torture. That is not the case in my country,” he said.
Today, the Conference will end after taking stock and thinking ahead. But already now, the will of those in the room is evident and the determination to move from a “history of neglect” to action in regards to the right to rehabilitation drives the group as a whole. Here, I can see unity and hope for the movement and for a world without torture.
Editor’s Note: Fábio writes from Beirut, Lebanon, where the global conference on the right to rehabilitation is taking place. The discussion on the right to rehabilitation is set in the context of General Comment 3 to Art 14 of the Convention Against Torture.
The participation of Mr Peter Cum Che Mebang and 10 other participants was funded by the European Commission as part of the IRCTs Non-State Actors (NSA) project.
It began perhaps with a 63-page report [PDF]. Jointly produced by The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) and Physicians for Human Rights – Israel, the report found that health professionals in Israel are often involved in ill-treatment and torture.
This was a glaring contradiction of their roles and obligations as health professionals. But contradictions are perhaps the standard in the context of the human rights in Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).
But many human rights defenders and organisations from all sides are trying untangle these contradictions and point a way forward. While many steps need to be taken to ensure an end to torture in the region, one way forward is an end to impunity for these crimes. And for the perpetrators to be held to account, torture must be recorded, documented and reported.
The IRCT is no stranger to training health and legal professionals in using the Istanbul Protocol – the common name for the Manual on Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment – in producing forensic medico-legal reports in cases of alleged torture. The document was developed in 1999 with assistance from more than 75 experts and spearheaded by the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, an IRCT member, and Physicians for Human Rights. The Istanbul Protocol is the set of standards and procedures to identify symptoms of torture for use as medical evidence in legal proceedings. The IRCT and partners worldwide have trained thousands of health and legal professionals on the use of this manual. [download a copy here]
But the project plan and the context are indeed unique, says Dr Joost den Otter, IRCT’s Clinical Director and Head of Health. Joost is heading up IRCT’s partnership with PCATI, who is running the project to train around 17 health professionals, targeted toward those professionals that speak Arabic, working in the OPT or willing to work with interpreters. All of them ready to assess detainees and prisoners from the OPT held within Israeli detention facilities. While a typical training session in the Istanbul Protocol will be just a single day, he says, the current project with PCATI lasts two years and involves four training sessions for the 17 participants, and any other legal or health professionals that are welcome to join. Participants also have to complete two assessments a year using the Istanbul Protocol procedures in cases of alleged torture. They also must write a scientific paper on torture for a peer-reviewed, academic journal in their particular health field.
“Health professionals are on the frontlines,” explains Joost. “These are the people who, rather than contribute to torture, must be doing their best to fight it. And further to that, spread their newly-gained knowledge to their colleagues.”
And the context of training Israeli health professionals on how to properly assess torture allegations is a bit tense. Some feel a contradiction or opposing senses of loyalty to the Israeli state, in which they are a citizen of, and reporting human rights violations.
“There is a perceived connectedness to the perpetrators. The ‘ticking-time bomb scenario’ is definitely in the air,” Joost says, referring to the oft-cited though clearly refuted [PDF] argumentation that torture is necessary in cases of immediate threats against citizens. Although the participants have been very eager and enthusiastic about the training on the Istanbul Protocol, they have reported a hesitancy to share this fact with their friends and family.
PCATI itself, unlike the IRCT, is not a health-based organisation, but a legal one. They have long been trying to gain access to the courts for victims of torture. They have filed approximately 800 complaints alleging torture by the General Security Service, but the courts have not yet taken one up.
Many of the health professionals also feel a sense of frustration after identifying a victim of torture – there are extremely few options for torture victims to access rehabilitation services.
“In this context, most torture happens in Israeli prisons, but torture is also rampant in Palestinian territories, where it may be even more difficult to access appropriate after-care.”
PCATI is not a member of the IRCT as they don’t offer rehabilitation services, but across hour-long checkpoints is the Treatment and Rehabilitation Centre for Victims of Torture in the West Bank, which Joost visited during his most recent training in the area. There are two more IRCT centres in the Palestinian Territories – Gaza Community Mental Health Programme and Jesoor Transcultural Right to Health also in the Gaza Strip.
But borders in the region are an obstacle. Joost, on this most recent trip, spent 90 minutes waiting at a checkpoint coming from Ramallah to Jerusalem. On a bus with a dozen girls making the trip to school, he felt his mere 90 minutes during this one-time trip was almost of no consequence compared to their twice-daily, five-days-weekly journey.
A fraught and tense context, of course, but one in which those on the front lines – the doctors, psychologist and other health professionals – can move forward on ending impunity and bringing the perpetrators of torture to justice.
“One billion women on the planet will be raped or beaten in their lifetime,” it says on the V-Day website. But the organisers of this global event intend for one billion to rise up on 14 February to demand an end to violence against women.
And two of those will be Piv la Cour and Noura Bittar Søborg. And, they hope, hundreds more at the event they’re organising in Copenhagen. Held at the World Culture Center, Piv and Noura have also invited four women to speak about their different areas of expertise on gender-based violence, including one from the IRCT to speak about women, sexual violence and torture.
It was Eve Ensler’s call this year to have ”One Billion Rising” that inspired Piv and Noura to organise the event. Ensler, a playwrite and activist most famously known for writing “The Vagina Monologues”, has in the last decade dedicated herself to eradicating violence against women through public demonstrations, art, and dance and the V-Day annual event. Held every year on 14 Feburary — more well-known in her native U.S. as Valentine’s Day — V-Day is intended to bring about awareness of the problem of violence against women, which includes sexual violence and torture during wartime, domestic violence, date rape, or human trafficking.
The two organisers met at the Trampoline House, a cultural house for asylum seekers and Danes that focuses on issues of asylum in Denmark. When Piv saw a video of Ensler’s TEDTalk and read the One Billion Rising website, she immediately wanted to bring the event to Copenhagen.
“I emailed it to Noura, who I knew was pretty motivated for everything,” says Piv.
It’s too true. Noura is the kind of activist that runs out of breath as she speaks — either from excitement of the news or from rushing up the stairs to tell you. By the time Piv returned to the Trampoline House some weeks after that email, Noura had already gotten some plans in order.
“I was like, ‘Wow, we are really doing this now!’” Piv says.
But her reason for doing so, for speaking out on this issue and encouraging others in Denmark to do so, is simply, “Because we can.”
“Violence against women is not something all people can talk about. In Denmark, we are lucky that we live in this democracy where we can speak out about these issues. It’s our responsibility then to do something with this freedom. We have a good safe base to start these discussions.”
This is not the case in Noura’s home country. After two years of ongoing fighting, rape has become a “significant and disturbing” feature of the armed conflict in Syria. There are ongoing reports of women and girls attacked by armed men at checkpoints; women being sexually assaulted in front of their families; others being kidnapped, held in detention centres and subject to rape and other forms of sexual torture.
Rape is undoubtedly being used as a weapon of war and torture in Syria. It’s been cited as a primary factor for those deciding to flee Syria and seek refuge in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, the neighbouring countries that are taking in the majority of the more than 700,000 that have fled since the start of the conflict.
Noura came to Denmark just 16 months ago, not directly because of the conflict, but because of her recent marriage to a Dane. She had finished her bachelor’s degree in Syria, in political science, and has since started taking Danish classes, working at IRCT member centre Dignity in Copenhagen, and starting the search for a master’s programme to continue her education.
When she was at university in Syria, before the crisis began, Noura says she was attacked on the campus, but thankfully rescued by a friend. Surprisingly, her mother, who she describes as “a communist, an atheist”, blamed her for the attack.
“Women can’t report these things, because then they will be blamed,” she explains. “You live in a society that tells you that it’s your fault. You don’t believe that you can go to the police for help.” Noura attributes the inability to collect robust data on the number of rape victims from the Syrian conflict on this — the fear of being blamed, the shame and stigma with being a rape victim.
But in other countries, Noura says, women can speak. “We can say, ‘This is wrong. I have rights!’” she says. “I have more of a voice and more rights here in one year than I had for 22 years in Syria. That is sad.”
Both women say they feel that it’s their moral obligation to speak out — and to instil perhaps small moments of education and inspiration for greater change.
“We need to speak out for those who can’t,” says Piv. “And fight for what we have,” Noura adds.
Nørre Alle 7
DK 2200 København N
When: 14 February, 19:00 – 21:00
• Tessa Moll from the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT)
• Human-trafficking experts Selina Mård and Line Larsen from (upcoming website Talk Trafficking)
• Expert from LOKK (Landsorganisation af Kvindekrisecentre)
Music and Art:
• Helen Kholin will be showing her exhibition Love&Art
• DJ Norm D will be spinning records
• Elou Elan will be singing
Dr Nabeel Hameed is a neurosurgeon, one of only three in the entire country of Bahrain. Yet Wednesday he was sentenced to three months in prison and $700 in fines for the conviction of “illegal gathering” — one of 23 health professionals convicted on these charges.
Dr Hameed was among the physicians, nurses and medical staff of Salamaniya Hospital arrested for treating anti-government protestors during the demonstrations at Pearl Roundabout in March 2011. Their charges included inciting sectarian hatred, promoting the overthrow of the government, harbouring weapons, illegally occupying the hospital, and theft of hospital equipment.
During the brutal crackdown against the demonstrators, about 30 people were killed and hundreds injured, many of whom ended up in the largest hospital in the capital, Salamaniya.
On 15 March 2011, the Bahrain Defence Forces seized control of the hospital, eventually detaining and interrogating some 48 doctors, nurses, medics, ambulance drivers and other hospital staff. Many later came forth and reported that they were tortured while in detention – including Dr Hameed, who was arrested a month after the government seizure of the hospital and detained for about three months.
“We became automatic witnesses,” Hameed explained to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “That’s a problem. When we saw the protestors, straight away we became automatic witnesses. To take our credibility away, [they] accuse us of a crime.”
Hameed was accused of killing, rather than treating, a protester who had died at the hospital after his care. The interrogators claimed he had done so to tarnish the public image of Bahrain.
International human rights organisations, including the IRCT, Amnesty International and Physicians for Human Rights, as well as other groups such as the World Medical Association (WMA), condemned the arrest and detention of medical staff in Bahrain.
“While various criminal charges were brought it appears that the major offence was treating all the patients who presented for care, including leaders and members of the rebellion…” WMA wrote in their statement. The global organisation condemned the acts of the Bahraini government, saying it violated the hospital staff’s commitment to medical neutrality.
“If we help others, maybe we can also help ourselves”
The Bahrain Rehabilitation and Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO) emerged largely from the controversial targeting of doctors and medical staff. Four of the founders were physicians at Salmaniya medical centre.
“We started [BRAVO] out of a need,” he explains. “In some ways, we thought that if we can help others, maybe we can also help ourselves.”
Within a year of being established, BRAVO has already set up three programmes. They provide treatment for eye injuries, a devastatingly common occurrence now in Bahrain as buckshot is a common weapon used against protesters. Victims are, for example, given a glass eye and provided with therapy to train the remaining eye. They have also set up group therapy sessions for victims of sexual harassment and assault. Finally, they have a psychotherapy programme for the families of those imprisoned or tortured.
Hameed’s own family, he says, is doing as well as can be expected. His youngest son was born just a few months after his imprisonment. After being in Copenhagen for the last few days when we spoke, he was excited to get back to his “beautiful wife and kids.”
“But the children in Bahrain,” he says; “these days they’re playing with barricades instead of toy cars.”
There have been large, well-attended protests on the street in Bahrain, particularly in the capital Manama, since the start of the Arab Spring last year. But Bahrain hasn’t followed the narrative of Egypt or Tunisia; despite ongoing protests and a brutal crackdown in March of last year, there has been no change from the Al-Khalifa royal family rule.
In June of last year, the government commissioned an independent report on the allegations of human rights abuses in the country, called the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). The BICI report, released in November 2011, was applauded for its forthrightness and frank examination of the abuses in the country, including violent police abuses on the streets and torture within detention facilities. Since the report, some changes have occurred – for example, the trials against the doctors moved to a civilian court instead of a military one; but many have criticized the lack of proper reform.
However, Hameed sees the government actions since the report as “beautified, not as flagrant violations” in comparison with the brutal treatment of 2011.
The government, he says, would like Bahrain to be viewed internationally as the pinnacle of human rights in the Arab world. And they have taken actions, even within recent weeks, to drain the opposition movement.
Indeed, in the days after I spoke with Hameed, 31 Bahrainis – opposition activists who had organised public protests – were stripped of their citizenship for undermining “state security”. Just a few days prior, the government banned public demonstrations, with the Interior Minister saying that “repeated abuse” of the rights to freedom of speech and expression could no longer be accepted.
It’s been the constant attacks and judicial harassment for his public speech that seems to have kept Hameed consistently aggrieved during this process. He stands firm on his right to freedom of expression. Despite the arrest, the torture, the ongoing court cases and the persistent threat of more, he’s defiant, not hostile, but decidedly non-compliant. He will continue to speak against the human rights abuses in Bahrain.
“I don’t mind them personally calling me a criminal. But not a traitor.”
Facing this most recent conviction, it is unknown whether Hameed will lose his license to practice medicine. For the time being though, there is some relief that at least he will not have to go to jail again – he has already served three months and will therefore not have to return. However, the fact that the judge in this case refused to hear any claims of torture from the medics, reflects much of the most recent criticism of Bahrain – that one year after the BICI report, few reforms have taken root.
The day saw an unprecedented number of organisations around the world come together to mark the day, to stand in solidarity with survivors of torture and to remind the world that rehabilitation for torture survivors not only works, it is a right to which they are entitled.
As Joost Martens, IRCT Secretary-General says in his foreword to the report,
Each year, on 26 June, we pause to commemorate and honour the victims of torture, both historic and present. The day has been marked since 1988, which was the first anniversary of the United Nations Convention Against Torture, signed on 26 June 1987.
Yet today, despite its absolute prohibition, torture continues to be a global phenomenon: both physical and psychological torture is prevalent in over half the world’s countries. This is a disgrace in the twenty-first century.
Its victims are men, women – often targeted by rape and other sexual torture, and also, children. Torture victims are disproportionately from marginalised groups, in particular the poor, but also minority groups, such as ethnic, religious and sexual minorities.
The day gives us a time to pause and remember those who have suffered, and stand with those who continue to suffer, for, the effects of torture continue long after the actual act has happened.
These are some of the photos we got from 26 June events around the world:
Today Danish lawyer Christian Harlang filed a further two cases in which Danish troops are accused of complicity in torture during the ill-fated invasion and occupation of Iraq by western forces. The torture was documented by members of the IRCT’s Independent Forensic Expert Group.
While further details of the case – involving Iraqis who were tortured after being handed to Iraqi authorities by Danish troops – are in the news release from the IRCT, among its most disturbing aspects are the reasons for its delay.
Denmark has a huge responsibility as a result of these allegations. Indeed, as per its international legal obligations via instruments like the UN Convention against Torture and the European Convention on Human Rights, any allegations of torture must be taken very seriously and thoroughly investigated. Moreover, access to justice and reparation must be provided for the victims.
However, it seems that two arguments: that the case is too old, and, that the torture victims must pay costs of over €5,000 without access to legal aid, are acting as stumbling blocks.
Arguments are being made that such claims for damages cases must be brought within three years, as per Danish law. However, even within this Danish law there are exemptions to this rule that can be granted due to exceptional circumstances. And these surely are exceptional circumstances. Often it takes years for torture survivors to come to terms with what happened to them before they can begin to speak about it, let alone bring a court case over it. Moreover, it is not reasonable to expect people living in a strife-ridden country thousands of kilometres away to know the intricacies of the Danish legal system.
That such delays are happening in Denmark is particularly concerning. Denmark is generally known and respected for its efforts against torture globally. That torture has not only been linked to Danish troops, but that the Danish justice system appears to be throwing obstructions in the path of justice for these actions sends out a new and different message.
Scott McAusland is Head of Communications at the IRCT