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When the heart attack came on 3 December 2006, Augusto Pinochet probably feared the worst. At 91-years-old he must have known this was the end of a controversial, turbulent life.
But what were his last thoughts as he lay in on his deathbed: regret, remorse, sorrow?
One hopes something was felt for the thousands of helpless Chileans who suffered from Pinochet’s brutal 17-year rule of the country.
Yet the fact still remains that the truth surrounding Pinochet and his rule was never discovered.
He died on the 10 December 2006 with over 300 crimes still against him, ranging from human rights abuses to embezzlement and tax violations.
Rather than celebrating his death or the passing of the oppressive regime, the Chilean people instead commemorate the 11 September each year – the date which, in 1973, saw Pinochet come to power via the violent military coup.
This year marks 40 years since the coup and is a special reminder about how far Chile has come as a nation and, perhaps, how far is still left to go.
A great divide
The rule of Pinochet is a topic which still splits some Chileans. The opposition to Pinochet use the 11 September anniversary to reflect upon the torture and inhumane treatment of up to 40,000 Chileans, and use the day as an opportunity to establish the truth from Pinochet’s dark regime.
According to former President and running presidential candidate for this years’ elections, Michelle Bachelet, the point of the 11 September anniversary to reopen the “painful wounds” of Chiles’ past, not to victimise people or governments, but “to get to know the truth.”
On the other hand there are people who, while agreeing with others in the denouncement of Pinochet’s reign, were once supporters of Pinochet and feel that the military coup was inevitable and any human rights violations were merely expansions upon the crimes committed by Pinochet’s predecessor, the left-wing President Salvador Allende – the world’s first democratically elected Marxist leader.
Whatever the political standing, everyone can acknowledge at least one truth – the human rights violations, which saw 3,000 Chileans simply disappear off the face of the earth and tens of thousands tortured, was one of the darkest periods of Chilean history.
Beyond the numbers
To date only 262 people have been sentenced for their part in the human rights violations of Pinochet’s regime. Over 1,000 judicial cases of human rights violations remain open today.
It has taken a lot of courage, honesty and investigation to even get to this point of human rights prosecutions. Many procedural changes from the state and justice systems have ensured that families affected by the torture have found justice.
But there is still a long road ahead.
While official figures state almost there were 40,000 victims of torture, detention and human rights abuses during Pinochet’s reign, experts believe that unofficially the number is much higher.
It takes continuous bravery for a torture survivor and their family or community to pursue justice. The crimes they know of may be too much to talk about – the details and sadness may just be too strong.
But survivors of torture, and their families, do talk. Thanks to limited positive cooperation from the Chilean judicial system, progress has been made with the transfer of some proceedings against human rights violators from private military courts to the civilian courts which apply greater transparency and independence.
However, jurisdiction surrounding military crimes still applies to human rights violations committed by the state. The result is that justice is still needlessly difficult to achieve for many affected by torture and, if justice is pursued, it is often in private.
The 40th anniversary gives Chileans an opportunity to show the world their progress post-Pinochet, to show every person who was perhaps skeptical of the country that Chile has evolved in ways once thought to be unimaginable.
More needs to be done to fully establish the truth surrounding Pinochet’s rule. For the past few months, Amnesty International has collected more than 25,000 signatures through an online petition calling for more open and accessible justice systems for torture victims, and for greater enforcement of human rights law in Chile.
It is a reminder that while the past is gone, dealing with this past properly is the only way to shape the future.
The reign of Pinochet is something which will not, unlike the victims of his regime, disappear any time soon.
On the 17 November the Chilean people will be reminded of the horrors of Pinochet once more, as they vote for their next President – the two candidates, Ms Bachelet and Ms Matthei, are daughters of two generals who suffered different fates under Pinochet’s rule.
As the BBC reports, Gen Alberto Bachelet was arrested, tortured and died in detention. Gen Fernando Matthei became a part of Gen Pinochet’s regime.
Pinochet may be gone but, for better or worse, he is certainly not forgotten.
Editor’s note: Ashley Scrace is a Communications Officer with the IRCT and writes from their office in Copenhagen, Denmark. He can be reached by email at email@example.com. You can also follow him on Twitter by going to @Ashleyscrace
Editor’s Note: Beneath the Blindfold, a documentary by Ines Sommer and Kathy Berger, follows the stories of four survivors of torture as they rebuild their lives. We were given the unique opportunity to screen the film. More information is available at the film’s website on events and screenings.
It’s difficult to identify the feeling you have as Beneath the Blindfold closes. The directors provide updates from the four people we’ve met in the last hour. And afterwards, what is it…? Hope? Melancholy? Empathy? The four stories, the four survivors of torture we meet during this one-hour documentary, are very different but their stories invoke similar complex emotions. But above all, we are left with an undeniable admiration for these four individuals, who, after unmitigated traumas arising from torture, are able to move forward through rehabilitation and rebuild their lives.
Beneath the Blindfold is an undaunted exploration of not only the experiences of the cruelties of torture, but more significantly, how people can move forward afterward. We meet Blama, a former child soldier from Liberia who, at the beginning of the film, cannot eat solid food because he was once forced to drink a toxic substance that destroyed his esophagus; Matilde, who was raped and tortured in Guatemala because she, a doctor, was treating indigenous people; Donald, a former US Navy officer, who was detained and tortured by US authorities after reporting illegal weapons transactions in Iraq while he worked as a private security contractor; Hector, who was detained and tortured as a college student in Colombia, now uses art to confront his past.
These individual stories, though different in the details and personal experiences of the survivors, nonetheless all echo similar themes. Torture, regardless of the methods by which it is inflicted, destroys an individual’s dignity. Their trust in humanity is shattered. Few of them can continue in their professions, and every day is a challenge to avoid flashbacks to their brutal experiences.
“You feel as though you’re nothing,” Hector says in recalling his experience in Colombia. “These people can do anything to you… no one can do anything. You’ve never felt so lonely.”
And yet, the viewer is left with not only a sadness that these are commons experiences in this world (we are reminded early on in the film that torture is practiced in a majority of the world’s countries, including in the U.S. where all of the survivors depicted currently live). Instead, I was overwhelmed by the bravery and enduring hopefulness of these four survivors, who, despite these circumstances, move forward with their lives – starting new relationships, making new friends, using their experiences as a basis for anti-torture activism, and helping others like them regain their lives. Hector, for example, has a theatre, dance and therapy group with LA-based Program for Torture Victims. Matilde and her husband march in the streets against the US torture program and the military actions in Iraq. Blama, who faced intensive physical rehabilitation to rebuild his digestive system, now in turn wants to help others and is studying to be a nursing assistant and later a registered nurse. Donald continues his legal challenges against the US government to bring perpetrators to justice.
Their family members can see their bravery. Hector’s son says at one point that when he realised his father had been tortured, he actually felt proud. “He was able to take this horrible experience, and use it. Use it to show people how bad torture is. “
Matilde publically speaks out about her torture to a crowd of activists marching against the Iraq war and the US torture program. “The more you share your story,” her husband Jim tells her, “they can see something very deep and strong in you, and they just know what you’re a survivor.”
And while the story progresses, the survivors – and the viewer – can see that too, as we “accompany a survivor on their path to healing,” as Mary Fabri, director of torture treatment services at Heartland Alliance Kovler Center, an IRCT member, put it in the film.
While always a dark and troubling subject, a documentary about torture is not without hope. Instead, the enduring feeling after watching Beneath the Blindfold is admiration – the survivors of torture shown in this film move on and rebuild their lives.
By Tessa, Communications Officer at IRCT
Victims of ill-treatment and torture of the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland may soon receive redress and compensation for the abuses they endured. Today, the government of Ireland received – and will reportedly release – a report on its role in the abuses at the Magdalene Laundries.
For decades, young women and girls toiled in the laundries, an Catholic-run institution where the girls were essentially enslaved – made to work without pay and endure mental and physical abuse.
From the mid-1920s to 1996, state courts or even families would send ‘fallen girls’, often young girls who were pregnant and unmarried, or the children of such women, to the laundries. There, they were forced to work – Maureen Sullivan, now 60, told the BBC that during her time at the laundries she worked from 6am to 9pm, seven days a week until she was 16. Girls knitted clothes, scrubbed floors and washed clothes and bed linens for hotels, the army and others. This was all done without pay while many women and girls suffered sexual, psychological and physical abuse.
While Peter Mullen’s 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters shocked many by its portrayal of the laundries, former Magdalene inmate Mary-Jo McDonagh told Mullan that the reality of the Magdalene Asylums was much worse than depicted in the film.
But few in Ireland, outside the Magdalene women, are understood to have known the extent of the abuse and ill-treatment going on. Research conducted by lawyer Maeve O’Rourke, who also campaigns on behalf of the survivors, claimed that the state was complicit in the torture and abuse as it sent girls to the laundries and, although dealing with them commercially, failed to inspect or regulate the institutions. Approximately 30,000 girls and young women are believed to have been involuntarily incarcerated in the institutions run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy, the Religious Sisters of Charity and the Sisters of the Good Shepherd.
In 2011, the UN Committee against Torture condemned the Irish government for failing to investigate these claims of abuse and ill-treatment at the Magdalene Laundries:
The Committee is gravely concerned at the failure by the State party to protect girls and women who were involuntarily confined between 1922 and 1996 in the Magdalene Laundries, by failing to regulate and inspect their operations, where it is alleged that physical, emotional abuses and other ill-treatment were committed, amounting to breaches of the Convention [PDF]
They were directed to begin formal inquiry. Furthermore, the UN committee called on the Irish government to establish a system for redress, rehabilitation and compensation for the survivors.
Many survivors are now threatening a hunger strike if they government does not provide for a thorough system of redress.
It’s time for an apology, and it’s time for redress. The survivors of the Magdalene Laundries, who have for too long been silenced and the crimes they suffered overlooked, deserve a thorough system of rehabilitation and compensation. It is their right.
When the film “Zero Dark Thirty” started appearing dozens of times on our newsfeed each morning, at first I thought I wouldn’t have to address it. After all, we have written more than a handful of blogs on the U.S. torture programme, how torture in interrogations has been proven to be completely ineffective, and regardless is irrefutably illegal, amoral, offensive and prohibited under international law and under all circumstances.
But alas it seems I will have to repeat myself.
The problem with “Zero Dark Thirty” is not that it depicts torture. A film demonstrating the truly horrific act of torture, and what it does to people, the graphic cruelty, is not without worth. The problem with this film is that it presents itself as a realistic account of the search for Osama bin Laden, and that during this hunt, information obtained through torture was instrumental in finding him.
There-in lays the most devious lie. The CIA has repeated again that torture was not useful in obtaining the intelligence information that led to Bin Laden. Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein and Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin also denied this was the case. But there it is in celluloid. Such a depiction simply bolsters the arguments of those who defend the efficacy of the US’s torture programme and the use of torture more generally as an effective measure to extract information and keep people ‘safe from terrorism’, a scenario that has been roundly debunked.
As Glenn Greenwald writes in The Guardian: “it propagandizes the public to favorably view clear war crimes by the US government, based on pure falsehoods.”
The debate over the film, however, is so off-kilter that even in engaging in these arguments, I find myself repeating the same framing of this debate that I find deplorable in the first place.
So let’s rephrase. It doesn’t matter if torture is effective or not. It’s not effective, as numerous parties have stated. But that’s not the point. It’s immoral, inhuman, illegal, and counter to any modern notion of human rights and international law. Torture is prohibited. Period.
In spite of its extremely problematic depictions, “Zero Dark Thirty” is a film. And while I do understand that films become part of a national discourse – or, in the words of Karen Greenberg, “[Zero Dark Thirty] will unfortunately substitute for actual history in the minds of many Americans” – the furor raised by this film should rather be directed at more dubious political decisions of the last few weeks with regard to torture – decisions that may have real, palpable consequences for the continued use of torture and the continued impunity for those who carried out or supported that programme.
Just earlier this month, John Brennan, former director of CIA’s National Counterterrorism Center until fall 2005, was nominated to head the intelligence agency, a move that critics say is highly indicative to the ways in which the crimes of the Bush administration have been institutionalised during Obama’s first term (see also, the National Defense Authorization Act in institutionalising indefinite detention). Brennan was removed from the shortlist of nominees in 2008, largely because he was considered ‘too controversial’ a figure; he has been vocally supportive of some of the worst human rights crimes of the Bush administration, including rendition and torture.
Consider a 2005 interview he gave soon after leaving the CIA. Asked about rendition and why some terrorism suspects are sent to other countries, Brennan responded:
“Well, sometimes that is the case because there could be an outstanding warrant for someone’s arrest in another country or they need to go back to the country of their origin because the local government and service can in fact question them more effectively in that country than in the place where they had been captured.”
His opinion on rendition?
“And I can say without a doubt that it has been very successful as far as producing intelligence that has saved lives.”
What we now know is that his useless euphemisms on ‘effective interrogation’ really meant being tortured in other countries, whether it was Egypt, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, or other CIA ‘black sites’. Many of the countries where detainees were sent were cited by the US’s own State Department for human rights violations and torture – a clear violation of the UN Convention Against Torture, which prohibits countries from sending individuals to a country where there is a clear risk of torture. Just last month, the European Court of Human Rights deemed the treatment of one such detainee, Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen who was mistaken for another person, to be illegal. El-Masri was detained in Macedonia, handed over to CIA officials, who then sent him on an illegal rendition flight to an Afghanistan ‘black site’, where was secretly held and tortured for four months.
But a large point to consider is that we don’t even know the extent of Brennan’s involvement in the torture and rendition programme. US involvement in torture, its extent, and who is responsible remains shadowy and beset by piece-meal information.
The US Senate Intelligence Committee approved last month a 6,000 page ‘torture report’ on the CIA’s detention and interrogation policies. But it has not been made public. It currently remains classified, and considering the Obama administration’s ‘reluctance’ (to put it kindly) to address the crimes of the previous administration and hold anyone accountable, well, I’m not holding my breath.
The furor over ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is not without merit and cause. But it could also be directed to more pressing crimes – the continued impunity and, in Brennan’s case, the institutionalising of these crimes. Instead of boycotting the film’s director Kathryn Bigelow or protesting outside of cinemas, we should hold our policy-makers to account, bring out the full truth on these heinous crimes depicted in the film and ensure that those defending such crimes don’t end up in leadership positions again.
Tessa is a Communications Officer at the IRCT.
Happy New Year! We have just returned from the year-end holiday. But before we look forward to 2013, let’s take a look back at 2012 and the events, successes, tragedies and changes in human rights around the world. This list is of course not exhaustive, so please feel free to add your own suggestions and story links in the comments section.
Click the first image to view in a slideshow.
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:
Danish troops did in fact witness abuse of civilian detainees at the hands of Iraqi troops during the conflict.
This has been verified by a video tape released yesterday in Danish media, provided by a former military intelligence officer, which shows Danish troops witnessing and commenting on a beating by Iraqi soldiers.
These new facts directly contradict the testimony of Lt. Col. John Dalby, commanding officer of Operation Green Desert in Iraq, who claimed at the end of 2011 that Danish troops had not witnessed abuse. While a military officer claims Dalby himself had seen the video tape, which was recording by troops under his command, Dalby today has denied this, claiming he first saw the video on TV2 News this morning.
But the question we ask ourselves is, what does this mean for the victims of torture and abuse in Iraq? Currently, 11 Iraqi citizens have sued the Danish military for colluding with torture. The cases concern the transfer of the 11 Iraqis by Danish troops to Iraqi forces, where they were tortured. The suit alleges that the Danish troops transferred the Iraqis despite the clear likeliness that they would be tortured in Iraqi custody.
This newly released video would corroborate the claim that Danish troops had previously witnessed abuse and thus had knowledge that torture and ill-treatment were likely. In the video, a Danish soldier sees Iraqi troops beating a civilian. Then, he turns and comments, “Did you see? They certainly get a beating” (In Danish, “Har du set, de får bare nogle hug”).
The IRCT collaborated with forensic experts and attorney Christian Harlang, who represents the 11 Iraqis, to compile high quality medico-legal reports that verified that they had in fact been tortured following the transfer.
“My examinations of the eleven Iraqis left me in no doubt that they had been physically and mentally tortured,” said Jørgen Lange Thomsen, Professor of Forensic Medicine at the University of Southern Denmark, who took part in the examinations.
We hope at the least that this new information get the Danish judicial system moving, after several blocks and delays have hindered the process of these torture victims from accessing justice.
See also our previous blog post on the allegation of torture from 11 Iraqi citizens against the Danish military
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
Of course, the nature of anti-torture work is often a sea of depressing news. However, in this news update, we would like to highlight that sometimes things can change for the better. Impunity can subside, torture may relent, and there can at times be a mild ‘sea-change’, so to speak.
On Wednesday, a US judge issued a permanent injunction against key provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would give powers to the US military to indefinitely detain a US citizen. One of the plaintiffs in the case, wrote in the Guardian:
Sometimes, it is worth believing in impossible things – like standing up to the United States government, and daring to believe you can win. Sometimes, we do. And because we did, for now at least, and for most of us, due process still stands.
Although the federal government has appealed the injunction, for now due process rights for US citizens remain.
From Tajikistan, we welcome the verdict that a police inspector has been found guilty and sentenced to seven years for torturing a 17-year-old boy. This is the first time that the domestic law criminalising torture has been used in a case since it was put in place in March of this year. Domestic laws criminalising torture are part of the obligations that states have after ratifying the UN Convention Against Torture, which Tajikistan did in 1995.
Hearings have started in a case against two police officers in Kazan, Russia on charges of torturing a man to death. The high-profile case has also resulted in the dismissal of the region’s interior minister. We hope that the victim’s family sees justice for this horrific crime.
In the Philippines, a court has also turned down an appeal from a Manila policeman who has been accused of torturing a man in detention.
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.