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Despite a strong government crackdown on protestors, over 300,000 people took to the streets of Bahrain’s capital Manama on 14 February to mark the three-year anniversary of the Bahraini protests.
And despite three-years of torture, imprisonment, and even deaths of protestors, the demonstrations against the government do not seem to be slowing down.
But also what is not slowing down is the government’s resistance to relinquishing power to the people. On the anniversary march alone, over 50 people were injured by rubber pellets and tear gas fired by police.
The last three years have seen the Bahraini government, the House of Al Khalifa, use extreme force over protestors whom are campaigning for respect for human rights. In every protest, the government has repelled the protestors with the use of force. The result over three years is shocking: according to data from The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), 93 people have died; more than 2,200 political prisoners remain in detention; and torture and enforced disappearances remain widespread on a daily basis.
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) has tracked the uprising since day one and Maryam Al-Khawaja, Acting President of the BCHR following the arrest of President Nabeel Rajab, knows in detail the harm the government can cause.
Her father, prominent human rights defender Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, has been imprisoned since April 2011 for allegedly plotting a coup during the pro-democracy protests. Maryam’s sister Zainab – who was recently released from detention – still faces a string of ‘anti-government’ charges. They are just two cases out of thousands who have been silenced by the government.
“People seem to assume that somehow the Bahrain revolution failed but I do not think it is fair to assess the revolution as ‘failed’,” said Maryam Al-Khawaja in a piece to World Without Torture. “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.”
Three years on, her assessment certainly still seems accurate. Aside from the occasional news report online, the world seems oblivious to Bahrain: the country is still portrayed as a safe haven for foreign investment and tourism; and large-scale international events, such as the Formula One Grand Prix, still continue to uphold the myth that Bahrain is free from unrest.
Yet the sheer numbers of protestors marking the importance of the ‘revolution’ tell a different story about the realities of Bahrain: its people want a democratic change from the 230-year-old Al Khalifa rule.
With human rights coming into question on a daily basis, it is a change that is needed – now, not in another three years.
Many questions come to mind when thinking about torture. What methods are used? Where does it happen? Who does it? Who are the victims? We have answered many of those questions in this blog.
But how do victims overcome the trauma from torture? Or the physical sequelae left by brutal methods of torture? There are probably as many questions and doubts surrounding rehabilitation as there are about torture itself. Here are some of the answers.
1. What is rehabilitation?
Rehabilitation is simply ridding of the effects of torture – it is to empower the torture victim to resume as full a life as possible. Torture rehabilitation can take a variety of forms. In approaching it through a holistic approach, rehabilitation can include medical treatment for physical or psychological ailments resulting from torture; psychosocial counselling or trauma therapy; legal aid to pursue justice for the crimes; or programmes and activities to encourage economic viability, among others.
2. Why do torture victims need special treatment?
In many contexts, torture survivors seeking rehabilitation can only receive regular care and many physicians will not realise they are in the presence of a torture survivor. The risks associated with that are many and much has been written about that particular issue. In brief, not all therapeutic approaches have been described as useful in the treatment of victims of torture. Also, therapeutic procedures can easily recreate the torture experience, putting the torture survivors at risk of re-traumatisation.
The questioning, the testing instruments used, the physical space, the power relationship between the clinician and patient, etc., all have the potential to recreate the torture conditions, thus undermining the positive benefits of therapy. In some of situations, the treatment administered by non-specialized clinicians can even lead to harmful effects to the survivor.
3. What is the right to rehabilitation and is it an enshrined right by law?
In the first instance, the UN Convention Against Torture and other Cruel or Inhuman, Degrading Treatment or Punishment outlines the rights of an individual, outlaws torture, and promotes respect for the human rights of an individual.
Article 14 defines precisely that rehabilitation of a victim is a state responsibility which should be enforced in every complaint of torture. It reads:
“Each State Party shall ensure in its legal system that the victim of an act of torture obtains redress and has an enforceable right to fair and adequate compensation including the means for as full rehabilitation as possible.”
However, while there is a right to rehabilitation defined on paper by the UN, the right is not necessarily granted – even among the 154 state signatories. Also some countries have not ratified the convention into their national legal systems, and other countries have not signed the convention altogether.
4. What are some of the main forms of rehabilitation?
Rehabilitation programmes vary depending on the context in which the support is implemented, the resources available to the organisation issuing the programmes, and the nature of rehabilitation needed by the torture survivor. However some main forms of psychological and physiological support include: counselling; therapy, individually or group; psychotherapy; social reintegration programmes; medical assistance; artistic classes; exercise programmes; yoga; and much more.
5. Do the rehabilitation programmes work?
Yes. Targeted, tailored programmes of rehabilitation do not only allow the torture survivor to overcome their ordeal, but it can also allow their family, friends, or community to rebuild.
You only have to look at some of the stories from survivors of torture to realise that rehabilitation is fundamental is ensuring a victim of torture can live their life as fully as possible. You can read some stories of survivors by clicking this link.
6. Is rehabilitation ensured across the globe?
No. Even among the 154 state parties (across 80 different countries) to the UN Convention Against Torture and other Cruel or Inhuman, Degrading Treatment or Punishment, rehabilitation is not assured – at least not by the state. Across the world, some statistics point to torture being practiced in around 90% of the countries. Many of these do not provide adequate services for redress and rehabilitation through the state, so the responsibility falls onto anti-torture organisations – such as the IRCT members – who must move survivors past their experiences of torture, often with limited resources and under the watch of authoritarian regimes.
7. What is the IRCT, and what is its role in torture rehabilitation?
The IRCT is the largest membership-based civil society organisation to work in the field of torture rehabilitation and prevention. It is their mission to ensure there is access to rehabilitation services and justice for victims, and to contribute to torture prevention. Currently, the IRCT consists of 144 members across 74 countries.
8. How many people have been treated by the IRCT?
With members spread across more than 70 countries and the risks associated with the safety of torture survivors, accurate data collection is a significant challenge for the IRCT. However, figures gathered in the past suggested that more than 100,000 torture victims have been helped by IRCT member organisations across the globe on a single year.
9. Who can rehabilitation benefit?
The physical and mental after-effects of torture are far reaching but so are the benefits of rehabilitation. The victims but also their families, friends and sometimes their entire communities. There may be different approaches necessary in the rehabilitation programmes, and there may be different obstacles to rehabilitation, but the benefits can be felt by any victim of torture. To be as inclusive as possible, members of the IRCT network therefore tailor their programmes to best suit the contexts in which they operate.
10. Through rehabilitation, prevention and justice, can there be a world without torture?
Yes. The world can be rid of torture just like it was rid of slavery. Undoubtedly, the journey is long and full of obstacles, but with the right mix of rehabilitation, justice and prevention, the vision of a world without torture can be realised.
The game of the ‘Wheel of Torture’ is simple: a prison guard takes a detainee from his or her cell, escorts them to a roulette-style wheel listing different methods of torture, and spins the wheel to determine just how much pain should be inflicted on the prisoner.
It sounds like a macabre gameshow in a dark future where “30 seconds of hanging” and ”20 seconds of beatings” are used for entertainment. But as recent news has shown, this game is a reality – and it may not be an isolated incident, one anti-torture union claims.
Following reports of the torture wheel’ earlier this week, the United Against Torture Coalition (UATC) in the Philippines is concerned that while the torture wheel is an extreme example of torture, it exists in a context where there is room for further practices like this to exist.
“The existence of secret detention facility indicates the government’s reluctance to ensure full implementation of the Anti-Torture Law [which gives room for] routine and widespread use of torture and ill-treatment of suspects in police custody,” the statement reads.
The coalition – a union of over 30 human rights groups including IRCT members Balay Rehabilitation Center and the Medical Action Group (MAG) – believe that while the 2009 Anti-Torture law is in place in the Philippines, it is having minimal impact on the prevention of torture.
“Four years since the law took effect, the number of cases brought to court against perpetrators remains a drop in the bucket,” the statement continues. “The government has overlooked zero-tolerance of torture and full implementation of the Anti-Torture Law, and has further set the stage of existing culture of torture impunity in the Philippines.”
The ‘wheel of torture’ discovery inside the Philippine National Police Laguna Provincial Intelligence in Biñan, Laguna province, has seen 44 detainees complain to the prison authorities. However, unofficially, the number of victims of this cruel practice could be much higher.
The officers involved in the case will be dismissed, but this is not enough to redress the victims, or to stop a similar situation of torture developing in the future.
There needs to be full investigations into this incident which sees offending officers disciplined for their actions, to ensure justice for the victims. There needs to be routes to rehabilitation for the victims also so, no matter what their experience, they can overcome their experience of torture. And there needs to be comprehensive reviews of the current state of policing in the Philippines, particularly in detention facilities, to prevent this torture happening.
It is an argument echoed by through the statement from the human rights defenders: “There needs to be more diligent implementation of the Anti-Torture Law. Currently the policy of “zero tolerance” is just to draw away the attention of the public and international community of the government’s failure to eliminate torture in the country.”
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.