Archive for category News & Clippings
This month has seen us fighting torture in the dental chair, calling for prompt investigations of torture in Ukraine, and welcoming a new member centre to the IRCT.
Below are a selection of the most popular stories from World Without Torture over the past month. Simply click the pictures and links to read the relevant piece.
Odontology and documenting torture
The most popular post this month focused on the increasingly sophisticated methods of torture exercised today, notably those which aim to go undetected by torturing the teeth of a victim.
But for the past 20 years, odontologists at the University of Copenhagen have been documenting the cases of torture they have seen so there is a better understanding of the increasing number of torture methods which aim to be impossible to identify.
Torture – coming to a cinema near you
With documentary The Act of Killing receiving an Oscar nomination – and fellow torture network Freedom From Torture discussing latest torture-themed film The Railway Man in the Guardian newspaper – we looked at just how realistic torture is being portrayed by the film industry today.
IRCT calls for investigations into reports of torture in Ukraine
As the anti-government protests in Ukraine continue, so do reports of state torture against protestors in the capital of Kiev.
With the help of a local newspaper in Kiev, the IRCT issued a statement calling for thorough and proper investigations into the torture claims. The IRCT continues to monitor the situation as it develops.
Calls to protect IRCT members in Bolivia and Mexico
Further calls of safety and investigation came from the IRCT this month to ensure the safety of staff across two centres in Bolivia and Mexico.
The Institute for Research and Therapy of Torture Sequels and State Violence (ITEI) in Bolivia reported a series of intimidating phone calls and death threats which have been present for almost three months now, and are calling on state officials to assue the necessary safety of human rights defenders at the centre – particularly in light of the robbery of the centre director (read more here).
In a similar vein, there have been concerns from IRCT member Colectivo contra la Tortura y la Impunidad (CCTI) that their staff are being defamed and targeted by the state. The IRCT called for the safety of the centre and for the necessary prosecution of those responsible for the alleged intimidation.
Working alongside the media to end torture
Another extremely popular blog this month came as an accompaniment to the publication of the stories of two torture survivors in Al Jazeera English (iPad edition). The stories of Damchoe and ‘AK’ – from Tibet and Armenia, respectively – explore two entirely different reasons for torture in two contrasting locations, but both stories follow their incredible path to recovery even in the face of extreme adversity.
Thanks once more to Al Jazeera English for working with us. If you have an iPad, you can download the magazine by clicking this link.
Helping Syrian refugees in Jordan
The conflict in Syria has created a huge refugee crisis, with almost 2.5 million refugees pouring into neighbouring countries. Jordan has accepted the bulk of the refugees – over 800,000 of them – and IRCT member Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) has been documenting the healing processes of these refugees from their branch inside Jordan.
However there have been some positive developments over the refugee crisis, notably the UK’s decision to accept Syrian refugees as soon as possible.
New IRCT member welcomed
The IRCT welcomed new member the Kirkuk Centre for Torture Victimsbased in northern Iraq. It is the second IRCT member in the country and will provide treatment to all victims of torture, particularly important with the influx of Syrian refugees to the region.
The centre has already helped around 2,000 victims of torture, over half of whom are women and children.
Also this month
We heard from IRCT Regional Coordinator for Europe, Mushegh Yekmalyan, about his recent trip Montenegro to report on the progress human rights defenders are making surrounding torture prevention in the Western Balkans.
Australia’s tough stance on migrants arriving by boat was featured once more, particularly as the policy as been hailed as a victory – all the while ignoring the human rights of the people the policy punishes.
Last year we wrote about The Railway Man, a film adaptation of the memoirs of Scottish prisoner of war Eric Lomax, who was tortured by his Japanese captors throughout his stint building the ‘Death Railway’ in Burma during the Second World War.
The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, at the time alongside other tales of torture in mainstream cinema. But with its depictions of waterboarding, beatings and solitary detention, it was The Railway Man which seemed to be best showing the realities of torture trauma.
But just how realistic are the scenes of torture?
With the help of psychiatrist Dr William Hopkins, from UK-based torture rehabilitation centre Freedom From Torture, the Guardian analysed exactly how true to life the suffering in the film is – an analysis which concludes with praise for the dramatic adaptation of the torture described in Lomax’s memoirs.
However, it is not just this latest release that is garnering positive attention from critics and human rights defenders for its reenacting of torture. Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing – which challenges former Indonesian death squad leaders to re-enact the torture and killing they previously ordered – has just earned an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Picture.
The documentary, which has received critical acclaim and 32 major film awards, looks set to win the category thanks to its original concept, its brave production, and its bold decision to ask the original perpetrators of the torture to re-enact the inhuman actions of the death squads during the Communist purge of the 1960s, a purge which claimed the lives of one-million people in Indonesia.
Such widely acclaimed films can be positive to the fight against torture. The gruesome reality and brutality of torture is not yet known or truly understood by the majority of people around the world and that poses a major challenge: apathy. Ultimately, these movies show that torture is not a seemingly staple, shocking scene of violent action movies. Far from it, in fact: torture is a real problem, one that is now being taken seriously by producers, critics and audiences alike.
Have you recently watched any movie portraying torture? If yes, we’d be glad to hear your thoughts. If not, take a look at this list and watch any of the suggestions.
A Buddhist nun is beaten for her belief in securing Tibetan human rights. A 20-year-old soldier is captured and tortured for supporting the wrong side of a war in eastern Europe.
Two different locations, two different voices, but both linked by the experience of torture.
As part of a thematic issue on torture, its effects, and the rehabilitative services on offer around the globe, Al Jazeera digital worked with the IRCT and other human rights defenders to bring to light the prevalence of torture in the world today.
The issue – entitled ‘The Colony’ for its main feature on a secret torture chamber run under Chile’s Pinochet regime – included stories from survivors of torture, a feature on the history of torture, and included a study analyzing the hunt for Nazi war criminals responsible for torture and death.
As part of this torture-themed issue, the iPad magazine featured two stories from survivors of torture who have both received treatment from IRCT members.
Former nun Damchoe was arrested for peacefully protesting against Chinese government crackdowns on the rights of Tibetan citizens. In the summer of 1995, Damchoe joined thousands of others calling for recognition of human rights in Tibet in the nation’s capital, Lhasa.
She was caught by Chinese police, sentenced to six-years in detention, and was forced to accept her beliefs were wrong through regular beatings and ‘re-education’. Now 34 years old, Damchoe utilized the help of IRCT member Tibetan Torture Survivors Program (TTSP) and, today, feels rehabilitated enough to share her story (read her full story on the IRCT website).
The second story focuses on ‘AK’, who was only 20 years old when he was captured and tortured for his part in supporting the side of Armenia during the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1994. Held in detention for over one year, AK was subject to beatings, threats of death, and humiliating rituals which involved eating raw eggshells. (Read his story on the IRCT website.)
AK – not his real name – has now moved on from his torture, but it took years of therapy from IRCT member FAVL to get him to a point where he felt like the past was finished with.
“I am such a proud father now,” said AK. “My eldest daughter is fascinated with language she is such a smart young girl who I am sure will be a linguist of some description. My youngest daughter is really into dancing and wants to be a famous dancer when she grows up. Both of them are full of such energy and excitement. It makes me glad I survived my experience.”
The issues covered in the magazine are pertinent in the world today but too often unknown by most. Thanks to the work of Al Jazeera and, of course, torture rehabilitation centres like FAVL and TTSP, , the voices of torture victims can reach the biggest audiences possible. Only that way we can fight for a world without torture.
Increasingly sophisticated methods and unusual practices join the fight against torture and impunity
Plainly speaking, odontologists investigate teeth. They are dentists who specialised in forensic dentistry, putting their expertise at the use of legal enforcement, and, in some cases, in the fight against torture and impunity.
Using x-rays, these special dentists document cases where perpetrators inflict direct damage to the teeth through punches or kicks, extract teeth with pliers or ground them with a file as a form of torture.
For nearly 20 years, odontologists at the University of Copenhagen have been called to action when an alleged torture victim reported that teeth were involved in the torture.
In a study of 33 cases of alleged torture recently published in TORTURE Journal, the odontologists were able to tell that, in all cases, the evidence found was to varying degrees consistent with the alleged claims of torture.
These odontological reports never standalone but are integrated into a full forensic report. When deemed necessary, other examinations are requested as well. These may include dermatologists, urologists, rheumatologists, physiotherapists, ophthalmologists, radiologists, neurologists, etc.
A thorough examination by an experienced psychiatrist acquainted with torture will often be able to diagnose psychological scars even long after the torture has taken place. However, such claims are not easy to discover.
As described by the authors of the odontological study mentioned:
“An oral cavity free of major pathological conditions other than what is reported to be due to torture assaults is easier to evaluate than an oral cavity with signs of severe periodontal and/or cariogenic lesions. It is however crucial to remember that an oral cavity with pathological conditions does not exclude that torture has taken place, but it does make it more difficult to objectively make a judgment as to the origin of the injuries.”
In addition, torture methods are typically selected for maximum psychological and physical impact without leaving marks, and the authorities often detain victims until the majority of the injuries have healed.
Other less obvious challenges pertain to common methods and tools of a dentist. For instance, victims who have been subjected to “submarino” – a method of torture whereby the victim’s head is held under water to just before the point of drowning – may react strongly to the water used in the oral cavity during dental treatment.
Documenting to fight impunity
One of the obstacles in the struggle against torture is insufficient evidence in cases against alleged perpetrators. Most cases do not lead to justice for the torture survivor because the scars on his/her body and mind have not been appropriately documented by doctors or used by lawyers in legal proceedings. Effective investigation and documentation of alleged torture is decisive in proving that torture has taken place, bringing perpetrators to court and ensuring reparation and redress for survivors and their families. Official recognition that torture has taken place serves to restore individual lives and public morale and sends a strong signal to torturers and those authorising the use of torture that this is never acceptable.
Join us in recognising all the medical doctors who everyday join the ranks of torture fighters and help prevent torture worldwide.
With New Year approaching, we at World Without Torture reflect on a selection of the stories which we have covered over the past year.
The last year has seen many tragedies, obstacles and difficulties in the human rights field. But coupled with this has come tremendous success, concrete change, and real participation in the fight to ensure human rights are respected across the globe.
Click any picture in the gallery below for more information and links to some of the most memorable stories this year. This list is by no means exhaustive, so please feel free to add your additions in the comments. We look forward to seeing you in 2014 and wish you a very happy New Year.
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