Archive for category Middle East North Africa
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
The repression against protesters and human rights defenders in the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain has been ongoing during the last 18 months. Beginning with the violent crackdown during the Arab Spring protests, the Bahraini state has been arresting, torturing and detaining human rights defenders, like Abduhadi Al-Khawaja.
Recent reports have emerged from the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) that the judicial harassment of human rights defenders Zainab Al-Khawaja and Nabeel Rajab has been stepped up to detain them on trumped-up charges for their legitimate protests activities against the state. In addition to supporting the work of human rights defenders, we at the IRCT are concerned for their safety; Bahrain has long established a pattern of torturing detainees, and we fear for the safety of Ms Al-Khawaja and Mr Rajab in light of their continued detention.
In our statement, we are echoing the call from BCHR for the Bahrain government to:
1. Immediately release detained human rights defenders Nabeel Rajab and Zainab Al-Khawaja and drop all charges against them, as it is believed that these measures have been taken against them solely due to their legitimate and peaceful work in the defense of human rights, and the exercise of freedom to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression in accordance to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights;
2. Immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience and activists including leading human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja;
3. Immediately put an end to the practice of torture and the ill-treatment of prisoners in Bahrain and bring those responsible to justice;
4. Guarantee in all circumstances that all human rights defenders in Bahrain are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals, and free of all restrictions including judicial harassment.
We also reiterate our call to the international community to put real pressure on the government of Bahrain to stop the ill-treatment of human rights defenders and to to release them immediately as it is believed that they have been targeted solely for their legitimate human rights activities.
Please circulate this statement through your social networks – Facebook, Twitter – to draw attention to the plight of these detained human rights defenders.
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a week-long series from Lars Døssing Rosenmeier, who is writing from the Middle East – North Africa (MENA) Regional Seminar in Amman, Jordan. The seminar is part of the European Commission-supported project, Non-State Actors, which you can read more about here. Read here for the first post.
The very initial moments of treating a torture survivor – the first interviews and basic data questions – can have greater importance than one expects.
The family in the short video had been arrested and tortured by Israeli armed forces after two members of their family were killed in a demonstration against the seizure of their land. The two phases shown in the film – the initial stages of intervention, and after they had received primary rehabilitation services – testify to the power of rehabilitation.
The family shown had received care at the Treatment and Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture (TRC), based in the Occupied Palestinian Territory of the West Bank.
The video was one presented by TRC at the IRCT Middle East-North Africa (MENA) Regional Seminar, which they are currently co-hosting with the IRCT Secretariat in Amman, Jordan this week. The meeting has brought together 20 health and human rights professionals from across this region to discuss some fundamental practices of their respective rehabilitation clinics.
Intake proceedings and documentation were the focus of the regional seminar this week: where health professionals gathered together to learn their respective procedures and processes to work towards determining a standardised form for data sharing. While collecting data and information, such as name, gender, birth date, and employment status, may seem like a simple function of a rehabilitation clinic, identifying the information that is already collected and can therefore most easily be shared across all treatment centres within the MENA region is very important for the fight against torture.
As Wisam Sehweil of TRC said, referring to the set of simple data that can now be shared; “I have been in many trainings, but this is the first time that a consensus is sought and reached in this way”.
It’s important because doctors, nurses, psychiatrists and psycho-social counsellors are also human rights advocates when working in torture rehabilitation. They are fighting for the right to health and rehabilitation for the torture survivors they meet with every week. International human rights treaties, such as the UN Convention Against Torture, the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, oblige states to provide protection from torture and proper rehabilitation for torture victims.
So what can health professionals do? In addition to treating and rehabilitating torture survivors, health professionals have the knowledge and experience on the ground to advocate for states to live up to these obligations. That’s why creating standardised procedures, such as basic data collection, is important in the fight against torture: health professionals, as human rights advocates, can bring this information to the United Nations and inform the UN monitors about the unmet needs of torture survivors in their country.
So this week in Jordan, 20 participants, from 10 different torture rehabilitation centres in 7 countries, are addressing these questions and in the processing reframing the way we think of health care professionals. Lest we forget: doctors, psychologists and counsellors are among those on the forefront of the fight against torture.
Lars assists the membership team, focusing on management of the NSA project. The NSA project is supported by the European Commission.
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a week-long series from Lars Døssing Rosenmeier, who is writing from the Middle East – North Africa (MENA) Regional Seminar in Amman, Jordan. The seminar is part of the European Commission-supported project, Non-State Actors, which you can read more about here.
Dr Fatima Hajji was one of 48 Bahraini doctors who were arrested and tortured during the Arab Spring uprising in spring of 2011. Now wanting to work to help other victims of torture, Dr Hajji is, together with the rest of the newly founded BRAVO organisation, working to establish a rehabilitation centre for torture victims in Bahrain.
Dr Haji, who has only recently had her travel ban lifted, joined more than a dozen other professionals this week at the Middle East – North Africa (MENA) Regional Seminar in Amman, Jordan. The seminar, hosted by IRCT together with project partner Treatment and Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture (TRC), brings together 19 professionals from 9 centres in 7 MENA countries.
Most of the MENA centres are strongly involved in the prevention of torture. Thus, in addition to focusing on how rehabilitation centres receive torture survivors and collect and use data on their cases, the seminar will cover the role of the medical professional and the rehabilitation centres as human rights advocates. Moreover, the arrest and torture of at least 48 doctors in Bahrain in the early spring of 2011 has highlighted the need for better protection of medical professionals in many countries.
During Sunday afternoon, four of the participating centres presented their specific intake procedures and the data collected during this procedure. The presentations and in-depth discussions will continue today and throughout the week.
“The timing of the workshop is perfect for BRAVO, because we just started structuring torture rehabilitation,” Dr Haji said. “This workshop helps us in getting it right from the beginning — using the best available tools for assessment and monitoring torture victims’ needs and standardised formats for better communication with international rehabilitation bodies rather than doing it later, which would be more difficult to redo it.”
Instead of flagging human rights abuses in Bahrain, F1 is choosing to ignore the grim reality
“On the track, Bahrain is going to be all about tyre wear”, it states on the Formula 1 website, reporting on their big race event in Bahrain, which begins tomorrow 20 April.
Off the track, however, is another story. Human rights violations, torture, indefinite detentions, judicial harassment, and a uniformly violent crackdown on democratic protesters throughout the last year. Demonstrations early last spring and the brutal state response caused F1 to cancel last year’s race. This year, however, they say the race will continue, despite a wave of outcry from human rights defenders.
The demonstrators are aptly using the Formula 1 grand prix to highlight these crimes committed by the overly image-conscious Bahraini regime and royal family. For example, last year they hired a U.S.-based public relations firm for $40,000 a month, plus expenses to quell their increasingly tainted international reputation. Just take a look at Twitter, where a huge conglomerate of human rights defenders and reform activists have taken advantage of the well-connected island nation to spread information, videos, pictures and news stories to highlight these human rights atrocities to the world. Zainab al-Khawaja and Maryam al-Khawaja, human rights activists and daughters of hunger striker Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, and Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, are among most followed Bahrainis on Twitter. In more recent months, the #Bahrain feeds have become more muddled in a social media battle as pro-regime and royal family supporters have stormed in, attempting to overwhelm the opposition with their own technology and tools.
And then there’s Formula 1, the singular event that unequivocally puts Bahrain on the map, and furthermore has previously showcased the capital Manama and the island nation as a “developed” “Western” ally in the Middle East (don’t forget, Bahrain has received both military, financial and symbolic support from the U.S. – which has a key naval base on the island - and European nations in the past). F1 two years ago brought in more than 100,000 visitors and an estimated half-billion dollars in revenue. Pushing the event forth and bringing back Formula 1, is simply a tactic for the Bahraini government to rebrand itself on the world stage, pretend that their so-called reforms have worked, and sweep away the human rights violations, crimes of torture, and the ongoing protests for a true democracy underneath the screeching rubber tyres.
And the Formula 1 organisation, F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone, and the teams participating in the Bahrain grand prix have much to answer for; their decision to move forth and participate in this shameful event not only aids the regime’s purpose for image-making, but thus allows these crimes to continue unabated and without redress for the victims. Instead, these are there excuses:
Bernie Ecclestone, chief executive, Formula One
“I’m happy our position is quite clear. We don’t get involved in politics in a country. There’s nothing happening. I know people here, it’s all very peaceful.”
Ross Brawn, principal, Mercedes team
“We have to take the advice of people who have all the information. We have reassurances from the FIA that we can have a safe race.”
Sebastian Vettel, driver, Red Bull
“I think it is safe enough to go and we should go there and race and not worry about something that is not our own business.”
Jenson Button, driver, McLaren
“I look to the governing body to decide whether we go to Bahrain or not. I don’t know all the facts; hopefully they can make the right call.”
There are simply no neutral parties when it comes to human rights violations and torture. By making these claims – Bahrain is peaceful, drivers should not get involved in political affairs, that nothing is happening – is, at best, highly naïve and is, more likely, that those in a position to take a stand instead are burying their heads in the sand. F1 leaders, teams and drivers, in a highly visible position in this debate, should rather use that platform to call out the Bahraini government for their crimes. International sporting events and their participants have a unique position to push forth change, and those in the Bahrain F1 event should use it. We can hope that, for example, the BBC, which is “contractually obligated” to broadcast the event, will not sideline the protests and demonstrations. Instead, we hope they use the F1 broadcast to show the awful truths Bahrain is keeping away from the track.
Today, on International Women’s Day (8 March), we wish to join the worldwide movement to honour women as human rights defenders. Women from all over the world, including at our 140+ member centres in over 70 countries, work at the frontline in the fight against torture. These women lobby national governments, head human rights inter-governmental bodies, work in rehabilitating torture survivors, and are often survivors of torture themselves.
At World Without Torture, we would like to honour these women by providing a platform for their stories today. Please share these stories to honour not only their work, but the hundreds of thousand of women human rights defenders worldwide.
Brazilian psychologist and human rights activist Vera Vital Brasil knows from experience what she is talking about when she tells about her years of work with torture victims.
As a student at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in the late ’60s, Vera participated actively in the student movement, a major focus of resistance to Brazil’s military dictatorship. Because of her activism, in 1969, she was arrested and tortured on the premises of the notorious DOI-CODI, the Destacamento de Operações de Informações – Centro de Operações de Defesa Interna in Rio de Janeiro. After three months in prison, Vera left Rio for exile in Chile. Her exile lasted six years and upon her return to Brazil, she was determined to try to turn the wrongs that others done to her into something good.
“What do we do with what others have done to us? Internalize this tormenting experience or fight to stop this happening again? I chose the latter,” she says about her involvement with victims of torture through clinical work.
In 1982, Vera joined other former political prisoners living in Rio de Janeiro against the appointment of people responsible for torture during the dictatorship. This initiative eventually led a group of former political prisoners, torture survivors and relatives of dead and missing people to found the Grupo Tortura Nunca Mais (GTNM/RJ, which in English stands for Never More Torture Group) in 1985, which, in 1991, started providing medical and psychological treatment and physical rehabilitation to victims of torture.
Throughout these years, her personal experience and dedication to other victims have convinced her that the trauma caused by torture can never be completely overcome but must be addressed through clinical treatment and proper redress.
“The damage caused by torture is accentuated if it is ignored, if there is no justice, or no redress. The fact that the state, which should guarantee and protect human life, is the agent of violence has a devastating effect on people’s psychological well-being. Our clinical practice is insufficient to cure this damage. But we can try to get people who have gone through this harrowing experience to feel better and give another meaning to this suffering, shifting it from a personal and private level to the collective and historical level, “she says.
Read Vera Brasil’s full story here.
Giving a voice to the victims
“You try to channel revenge through peaceful channels, you know, campaigning, publishing, providing legal consultation, providing legal aid, taking the person to court, accompanying the person throughout this process,” says Dr. Aida Seif El Dawla.
Dr. Seif El Dawla, founding member, psychiatrist, and human rights defender at Egyptian centre El Nadeem, was awarded the 2011 Alkarama Award for Human Rights Defenders.
For nearly two decades at the El-Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, she has worked with countless victims of torture. When the Egyptian clinic began in 1993, Seif El Dawla and the other founders wanted to provide psychological services to the survivors of torture and their families. They sought other like-minded organisations – medically-based NGOs that served the psycho-social needs of victims of violence – to model their new clinic. Soon they realised that focusing simply on the psychological rehabilitation neglected the social and political aspects that allowed the crimes to continue – the victims’ access to justice and seeking the prevention of torture.
“Many of the people who come don’t really want to have a psychological assessment,” she says. “I realised that those people aren’t really patients in the classic sense of patients. They have responded very normally to an extremely abnormal situation.”
El-Nadim not only had to treat the psychological consequences of torture, but provide their clients with access to medical doctors to treat the physical wounds. In addition, many survivors came to the clinic with a need to channel their anger, humiliation, and helplessness into bringing their perpetrators to justice, bringing the crimes to light.
When the image of Khaled Said’s face appeared in the newspapers, bruised and beaten, Seif El Dawla had seen it all before. Said’s image ignited change. The people of Egypt have become fed up with a broken system and a police force that tortures, carries out arbitrary arrests, and falsifies forensic reports, she says.
“Already before the 25th of January people had enough of this kind of violence. They had enough. And it’s not a coincidence that the first targets of the people when they revolted were the police stations, all over, because there isn’t a governor, there isn’t a city, where there isn’t a family who has lost somebody to a police station or who has a relative who was abused or humiliated in a police station. So, it was already boiling. Now, people are not willing to take it anymore.”
During her medicine studies in the late eighties, Yadira Narvaez was unexpectedly transferred from a neurological clinic, where she worked as an intern, to the medical department of a male prison.
The unwanted transfer was a punishment for her habit of wearing trousers. “My superior said that if what I wanted was to look like a male, I should be as close as possible to men”, she remembers. The experience became one of the most transformative events in Forensic Doctor Yadira Narvaez’s life. “It was a striking experience: there I learned the difference between being alive and dead”.
While working at the medical department of that prison, where approximately 1,500 men served their sentences, she discovered the real meaning of the word torture. “By then, I really didn’t know what torture meant and what it could do to people”. Dr Narvaez‘s placement at the prison ended after 18 months but has led to decades of dedication to the treatment and protection of torture survivors and prisoners.
Two years after the end of the “punishment”, Dr Narvaez decided to go back to work in the same prison, this time, of her own free will. She went on to also work in the treatment of female detainees at another penal institution. Being a witness of the suffering caused by a lack of respect for human rights made Dr Narvaez realise that she needed to do something to try to protect prisoners and to assist torture survivors.
To address the problem on a national level, Dr Narvaez helped found the Foundation for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence (in short PRIVA) in 1997. In addition to denouncing torture in Ecuador, PRIVA focuses on the prevention and eradication of torture and the care of torture victims and their families.
“Like Martin Luther King, I also have a dream: that one day in my country all individuals who, for any reason come into contact with the penal system have their rights respected, have the right to be heard and the right to justice,” says the 52-year old doctor. “And torture victims need access to rehabilitation services to recover at least part of the health lost due to arbitrary practices by state agents. In addition, torture survivors need to be assured that these violations will not continue so that they can go on to live without fear”.
Read Dr. Narvaez’s full story here.