Archive for category North America

On the Forefront: Helping torture survivors in San Diego

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At IRCT member centre, Survivors of Torture International (SURVIVORS) it is the little things that matter. Something as small as a bus ticket can mean the difference between treatment and no treatment for torture victims.

Staff at SURVIVORS treat many refugees and asylum seekers who have limited or no financial resources and support network. Getting to the centre is a big challenge for those who do not live nearby, especially because public transportation in Southern California is restrictive and challenging to navigate, even for those who speak the language and are familiar with the city.

Then there are the exorbitant costs of public transportation. One thing is to work out how to get there, another thing is to pay for the tickets.



Until now, SURVIVORS has been able to offer bus tickets or other help with transportation to any client in need, but a reduction in funding has forced the centre to make some tough decisions.

Sadly, SURVIVORS’ story is far from unique. Across the world, rehabilitation centres have seen a decrease in funding from donors focusing on immediate results over holistic rehabilitation.

Despite these challenges, the San Diego centre will continue to treat the same number of clients as before, but now the centre staff can no longer offer some of its most desperate clients help with transportation.

Demonstrating a medical examination.

Demonstrating a medical examination.

“While our financial situation won’t affect the number of clients that we’re treating, it will however impact many of our clients who are asylum seekers with little or no financial support. These clients rely on public transport to get to the actual center, but with less funds, SURVIVORS won’t be able to help pay for their bus tickets, as we used to,” says Executive Director of SURVIVORS, Kathi Anderson.

Kathi Anderson explains how one of the centre’s clients is a woman who is 6 month pregnant. Alone in a new country and without any support network, this small token has made a huge difference to her. Kathi Anderson is worried that if they do not continue to help her pay her bus tickets, she is not able to turn up for her treatment.

Since it opened in 1997, SURVIVORS has helped thousands of survivors of torture to recover from their traumas by offering them a range of services, including medical, dental, psychiatric, psychological, and social care.

Clients often prefer telling their stories in the kitchen.

Clients often prefer telling their stories in the kitchen.

The staff has seen first-hand how the number of refugees and asylum seekers in need of treatment is increasing. The many armed conflicts and humanitarian crises worldwide means that for the first time since the Second World War, the number of refugees and asylum seekers on a global basis has exceeded 50 million. This development has put enormous pressure on rehabilitation centres like SURVIVORS.

Exacerbating the situation for SURVIVORS is the news that a nearby government-run detention centre for immigrants is moving to a new facility, doubling its size. Being the only rehabilitation centre in the area, the centre fears that it will be forced to turn away immigrants with nowhere else to go.

When asked if there are any alternatives nearby for those torture victims they will not be able to help, Kathi Anderson replies:

“The nearest rehabilitation centre is in Los Angeles which is a 3 hour and 76$ train ride each way. I can’t imagine that there are too many refugees who can afford this or have the mental strength to get on that train.”

To find out more about SURVIVORS, visit their website

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New rehabilitation models are taking culture seriously: treating Cambodian survivors in the USA

Four years was all Cambodian dictator Pol Pot and his regime needed to murder 1.5 million people. From 1975 to 1979, starvation, torture, disease and overwork mainly contributed to the deaths that affected the well-being of the entire country.

torture journal

The upcoming edition of the Torture Journal will cover topics related to torture and rehabilitation.

Today Cambodians still come to terms with the Khmer Rouge regime, one which is still being brought to justice, most recently with the life sentences of Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, two figureheads of the regime.

For the survivors, justice only does so much. For many their families are destroyed and those who tortured them have already escaped punishment throughout the majority of their lives.

Now, ahead of the upcoming edition of Torture Journal, we hear from a different project in the USA which is helping Cambodian torture survivors there overcome their past through rehabilitation.

The Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma’s Cambodian Health Promotion Program uses health professionals from psychiatry, nutrition, mental health and biomedicine fields to implement group sessions with 126 survivors of torture to help them move on from their past.

The torture survivors themselves are instrumental to their own recovery with much of the onus on each survivor equipping themselves with power and knowledge to resume their lives, under the facilitation of the health professionals and other group members.

Groups discuss their past, their present and, with hope, their future. Heightened healthcare is promoted through Cambodian culture running alongside traditionally western health concepts; depression and sleeping patterns are discussed to analyse the effects these have on the body; the benefits of physical activity in promoting good mental health are explored; and the benefits of good nutrition are outlined also, all within the context of Cambodian cuisine.

What the project attempts to do is to empower victims of torture to improve their own physical and psychological wellbeing without prescribing the correct ways to look at things – at every stage the cultural traditions of Cambodia are synthesised with evidence-based medical developments.

The study documents that survivors of the genocide generally report worse health conditions than those who were not affected by the Khmer Rouge regime. It is estimated that over 50 per-cent of the survivors were tortured, which has led to chronic health conditions.

Across the four-year health promotion group, improvements were reported across the group of survivors in healthcare, health behaviours, sleeping patterns, self-confidence and depression.

Only seven per-cent rated their health-state as poor after the conclusion of the project, down 13 per-cent since the survivors were surveyed at the inception of the project. Incidences of daily nightmares were only reported by three per-cent of the group (down 10%) and self-confidence issues dropped by over 20%.

Projects such as this show the positive impact of rehabilitation. Whether it is in a community setting, a medical setting or otherwise, targeted, tailored rehabilitation has life-changing results.


To read the full report click this link.

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Doctors who do harm. What will happen to those who designed the torture methods?

Amidst the CIA taking the central role as the perpetrator for the torture committed under the ‘War on Terror’, one particular question has been forgotten: what will happen to the people who actually designed the torture methods?

CIA emblem

CIA emblem

Recent spin and simplification lumps the CIA as the overwhelming perpetrator of all the torture against terror suspects. Without understating CIA’s role in this — CIA operatives mercilessly implemented the torture techniques documented today in the upcoming CIA torture report and through the continued allegations emerging from those victims who survived CIA ‘black sites’ in particular — it must be remembered that the network involved in the torture of suspects is far-reaching.

Behind the torture is a methodology, a design to break even the most resilient individual. Behind the design is calculated thought, professionally planned actions that inflict the maximum level of pain and suffering while minimising identifiable scars and traces.

And behind this thinking are doctors.

It has long been documented by a range of media outlets that US military doctors were complicit in the design of torture methods, clearly violating their ethical, medical and legal codes as health practitioners.

A report from the Taskforce on Preserving Medical Professionalism in November 2013 states that after 9/11, health professionals aligned with the military and intelligences authorities participated in the production and implementation of “cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment and torture of detainees”.

A waterboarding demonstration by US Navy veteran Joe Tougas. Waterboarding was one of the torture methods doctors helped develop with the CIA (picture used under Flickr creative commons licence courtesy of  Isabel Esterman)

A waterboarding demonstration by US Navy veteran Joe Tougas. Waterboarding was one of the torture methods doctors helped develop with the CIA (picture used under Flickr creative commons licence courtesy of Isabel Esterman)

Yet many of these doctors will simply never face trial. Regardless of whether doctors were coerced or tricked into the CIA’s ‘enhanced interrogation’ processes, justice still needs to be served.

It’s a concern echoed by Vincent Iacopino, Senior Medical Advisor for Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and member of IRCT’s Independent Forensic Expert Group, in a recent letter to the Editor of the New York Times.

“Before lawyers wrote memos distorting the definition of torture, psychologists worked in concert with interrogators to develop methods intended to exploit the vulnerabilities of detainees and to inflict physical and mental pain,” says Mr Iacopino in the letter.

He continues: “As detainees suffered — and in some cases, died — health professionals routinely failed to report, document or stop the abuse.”

In doing so, they betrayed the core ethical principle of health professionals: do no harm. They also did not question their role. Apathy is apparent in the instance of US psychologist James Mitchell, who was instrumental in designing the torture techniques. Speaking in April 2014 he said the following:

“I’m just a guy who got asked to do something for his country by people at the highest level of government, and I did the best that I could.” (quoted in Russia Today)

It is the Milgrim experiment CIA-style: the infamous study which showed people are far more likely to inflict pain on another human being if someone in perceived higher authority delivers the orders.

This is wrong and shocking. The doctors who are meant to heal contributed to the harm.

When the truth about the CIA torture methods comes to light, hopefully perpetrators will be brought to justice. Those who inflicted the pain must be punished for their crimes and victims, who are still alive, should be directed to the appropriate channels of rehabilitation and redress.

Yet punishment needs to extend beyond those ordering the torture and those following the orders. Behind the programme against human rights are doctors who designed the methods. These people are perpetrators too.

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Legislation to end torture in the USA

In our latest blog we meet IRCT’s Elena Cálix from Honduras, who is currently an intern at the IRCT European Affairs Office in Brussels. In line with her work, Elena tells us about legislation related to justice and rehabilitation for torture victims in the United States.


IRCT’s Elena Cálix

The funding of rehabilitation services poses a continuous challenge for the IRCT and its member centres. Moreover, the unwillingness of states to comply with their obligations, leave NGOs struggling to acquire sufficient funding to provide the necessary rehabilitation to victims of torture. As I started a desk study about prospects for funding rehabilitation services for torture victims in Europe, I first had to take a look at what other regions are doing in this respect. In this piece, I would like to share some particularities I have found about the United States (U.S.).

In the international arena the United States is seldom related positively to the word “torture”, especially in light of the very public torture cases perpetrated in name of the “war on terror” or the ongoing violations that have been taking place for years in Guantanamo Bay. Nevertheless, it is not all negative when it comes to the U.S. and torture; there are positive features within their legislation that deserve a mention with regard to justice and rehabilitation of torture victims.

ATCA and TVPA: Tools to Bring Perpetrators of Torture to Justice

For over 30 years, a foreign victim of international crimes – including torture – has been able to seek redress in United States federal courts and obtain civil remedies under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA), created in 1789. Although there is little known about the reasons for the creation of this law (the word torture is not once mentioned), after nearly 200 years of disuse, it was used for extraterritorial jurisdiction in cases of torture in 1980 with the landmark case Filartiga v. Peña-Irala.

The list of cases filed under the ATCA since then includes lawsuits against former heads of states, other government’s officials, military personnel, members of death squads, and even corporations.

Furthermore, in 1991 the U.S. Congress adopted the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA), a legislation that provides the right to bring a lawsuit specifically to victims of torture and extrajudicial killings. Unlike the ATCA, the TVPA actually provides an actual definition of torture and it applies not only to aliens exclusively, but also U.S. citizens victimised by torture in foreign countries.

An example of a successful case brought under the ATCA/TVPA is Jean v. Dorelien, a case against a former member of the Haitian Military’s High Command during the dictatorship in Haiti, who was found guilty of torture, extrajudicial killing, arbitrary detention and crimes against humanity in 2007. The perpetrator won the state lottery while living in Florida and as a result of the judgement in 2008, the amount of $580,000 was distributed to the victims. One of the victims used a portion of the recovery to help fund The Hope Centre for Haitian Refugees, an organization he founded to provide social services to Haitian refugees.

Torture Victim Relief Act: Funding Rehabilitation of Torture Victims

In terms of rehabilitation of torture victims, the Torture Victim Relief Act (TVRA) must be acknowledged as an example of national legislation introduced to provide funding rehabilitation centres. The U.S. Congress passed the first TVRA in 1998, authorizing funding support programs domestically and overseas that carry out projects or activities specifically designed to treat victims for the physical and psychological effects of torture.

The funds are accessed by rehabilitation centres through a competitive grant process. The TVRA authorises the Office of Refugee Settlement (ORR) to fund the U.S. based rehabilitation programs for survivors of torture, and authorises funding for the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture (UNVFVT) to support programs that are carrying out projects involving torture rehabilitation, outside the U.S.

The U.S. going forward

The U.S. has powerful tools for human rights litigation with the ATCA and the TVPA; furthermore the establishment of legislation such as the TVRA could demonstrate effort to provide legal remedies for torture victims.

Nevertheless, I believe that further research is needed in regard of the actual implementation of these legislations on the ground and its effectiveness in the fight against torture. Moreover, it is important to make clear that this does not necessarily counteract the U.S. unwillingness to join international legislation against torture and to end impunity in torture cases involving their government officials, in the Bush administration for instance.

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On the Forefront: The journey of CVT from local US campaigning to a global movement

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Since founding in 1985, the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) has rehabilitated over 24,000 torture survivors, provided healing programmes for people affected by torture and violent conflict, implemented community building projects in the aftermath of some of the world’s deadliest wars, and pioneered research into torture rehabilitation and prevention.

That’s a pretty impressive resume for a centre which essentially began as a conversation between a human rights campaigner and his father, the then Governor of Minnesota.

Staff at CVT

Staff and friends of CVT

Following a visit to Denmark and the Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims – now the Danish IRCT member, DIGNITY – Governor Perpich returned to Minnesota to establish CVT as an independent non-governmental organisation aimed at healing torture survivors.

But CVT did not just remain influential in the US and, by the early 1990s, their operations had expanded with work in Bosnia and Croatia. In 1995, CVT began working with medical professionals in Turkey to train them in the documentation of torture survivors.

Today CVT is truly a large international movement, offering direct care for torture victims and refugees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, refugees of the Somali war in the Dadaab camps in northern Kenya, urban refugees in Nairobi, Kenya, Iraqi and Syrian refugees in Jordan and Eritrean refugees in northern Ethiopia.

But as well as expanding and developing their projects across the globe, CVT is working on shaping public opinions at home. Through a newly established blog, the team at CVT aims at adding personality to the movement, to give people an understanding of the work of CVT staff and the experiences they encounter through their anti-torture work.

CVT staff in Dabaab, Kenya

CVT staff in Dabaab, Kenya

It is yet another initiative of CVT’s ever-expanding tapestry to prevent torture and improve the lives of torture survivors.

“Torture has profound long-term effects. Physical reminders include headaches, chronic pain, respiratory problems and a host of other symptoms. The psychological damage is often worse,” says Brad Robideau from CVT.

“But healing is possible. We help survivors rebuild their lives so torture is in their past and not something they re-live every day.”

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On the forefront: meet the organisations behind the torture rehabilitation movement

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Through more than 140 rehabilitation centres across the globe, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) is the largest international network against torture, providing rehabilitation, justice and hope to victims of torture all over the world.

Although under the same umbrella, each of these organisations is unique and operates in a variety of contexts. There are centres working around the clock to deal with humanitarian crises – such as Restart in Lebanon, or the Institute for Family Health in Jordan, which are currently struggling to respond to the challenging influx of Syrian refugees, many of them victims of torture, and groups working with the victims of long past dictatorships, such as those of Latin America in in 1970s.

There are also centres focused on healing entire communities through group therapy and counselling in places where armed conflict created deep societal wounds, and centres who are working with victims of terrible, and often covered-up, state torture, in countries usually assumed democratic and free from torture.

The range of focus areas is vast and, to counter this, so are the different methods of rehabilitation: there are traditional methods of rehabilitation, from psychotherapy and counselling, to group projects focused on rebuilding a community; there are innovative programmes such as yoga sessions which offer physical solutions to long-term pain; storytelling classes and artistic events across centres allow survivors of torture to express their pain in a personal and enlightening way; and projects such as the natural growth project, run by Freedom From Torture, which allow survivors of torture to find their place in the world by reconnecting them with nature and society.

Despite the differences, these organisations share an aim: to create a world without torture.

Over the coming weeks we will be focusing on particular torture rehabilitation centres from across the globe, giving an insight into how they operate and the work they complete on a daily basis.

Every week we shall turn our attention to a different centre and showcase how the centres and programmes work within varying national and local contexts, with different target groups, and use a range of methods to address the effects of torture on individuals, families and communities.

Torture has far-reaching consequences. Rehabilitation too has a far-reaching impact, one which can assist a person, a family, a community, and even a region, in moving on from their past and into a pain-free life once more.

Join us from next week as we go behind-the-scenes of the centres.


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Documentary delves into relationship between survivors and those who offer them treatment

Refuge (2)“More than one million refugees have come to the US, fleeing torture and political violence,” begins Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture, an outstanding new documentary from the Refuge Media Project.

The vast numbers are staggering, but what makes a greater impression in this stand-out documentary are the small, individual stories from survivors and those who offer them care and support as they resettle in the US.

Ben Achtenberg, project director at the Refuge Media Project and producer/director of Refuge, says the film – seven years in the making – came about as his general interest in healthcare and mental health issues drew him to organisations and healthcare providers that offer support to survivors in the US. Previously, he was nominated for an Oscar for the film Code Gray: Ethical Dilemmas in Nursing, which he produced and served as cinematographer. Mr Achtenberg also won the 2009 IRCT Film Competition for his 30-second public service announcement.

“During the same period, I had started contributing to organizations that work with survivors and, in particular, was receiving the newsletters of Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis and similar groups around the country, about their work with survivors. At some point, it clicked that this was the film I should focus on.”

The stories presented in the approximately one-hour film are diverse, from a physician from Guatemala to an older man from Liberia who wishes to move his daughter to the US. They have different stories of torture, different stories of migration to the US, but they have all sought refuge and have found their way to the various featured torture treatment programmes, many of which are IRCT members. (A full list of organisations featured in the film can be found on their website)

Through the stories of survivors, both devastating and inspiring, we take home still another call to action – that healthcare professionals will, in fact, see a survivor of torture during their work, and they need to know what to look for and how to approach it so that the person can receive appropriate care.

“People who have survived torture are living everywhere in our communities, though you may not know who they are,” says Mr Achtenberg. “If you’re in or going into a healthcare or human services profession, you will encounter torture survivors in your client population. How you deal with them can have an impact on their ability to thrive in their new communities.”

It’s a delicate and caring relationship between the health professionals – doctors, therapists, social workers – and the survivors of torture they treat. “It’s a doctor that can listen to you and make you feel like you’re a human being,” says one survivor in the film. Another describes a mural painted by survivors at a centre in Boston: “We come from our countries, swimming across and arrive here naked, but you pick us up and give us back what we have lost.”

This wonderful film offers a unique perspective into the world of torture survivors, their experiences and reservations opening up, and into the world of the care-givers, as they approach the formidable task of helping them recover their dignity and life.

For more information on the film, please visit To order a DVD of the documentary, email Ben at to inquire about pricing.

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Apologising for torture is never enough

Jon Burge (picture courtesy of

Jon Burge (picture courtesy of

‘Sorry’ is such a short word but has so many long and deep meanings attached to it. You can apologise for an argument, a disagreement, an accident perhaps. But when it comes to torture, sorry is not enough – and never should it be accepted as enough.

Only a couple of weeks ago the Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, apologised for the decades of unbridled abuse and torture towards black suspects under the watch of Police Commander Jon Burge.

The torture and racism, which was rife for a period of almost 20 years, began in 1972 when celebrated Vietnam veteran Burge was elected as the new tough police commander for the Chicago Police Department.

Almost immediately after his appointment, allegations of torture began to emerge, with many focusing on being tortured to secure confessions. Through the 70s’ and 80s’ further allegations arose, most notably following the killing of a police officer in Chicago in February 1982, where black suspects were rounded up and handcuffed to stationary objects for long periods of time, pets were killed in front of their owners and children were held at gunpoint while questioned.

Allegations of torture under Burge’s rule continued to grow. Today, there have been over 200 registered complaints of torture, many of which are still being compensated. So far $85 million has been paid in compensation but many cases are still awaiting outcome.

Burge was dismissed from the police in 1993 and faced no charges for his allegations. However, in 2011, he was sentenced to four years in prison for lying under questioning when the allegations were brought against him.

In this respect, justice has been served in this case to some extent – the main head of this torturous movement has been made to face the facts. But other than a single change at the top and an apology, changes in this case – and many others – are rarely meaningful and longstanding.

In any case of torture there needs to be processes in place to ensure that the perpetrators face full and open legal inquiries – not just the figurehead of torture, but those who actually delivered the torture in person.

In this vein there need to be routes in place for victims to seek justice in the first instance. Victims and perpetrators need to know that, whatever their story, torture is wrong in every instance. Torture is used to extract information, to prevent the flow of information, to torment, to persuade, to shock, to damage someone’s livelihood, or simply to establish a message. It can happen to anyone in any country regardless of political, religious or social sympathies. Torture is wrong and every victim of torture needs to be granted simple, effective routes to pursue justice, truth and rehabilitation.

Torture victims also need rehabilitation – they need to be notified that services exist to help them develop their lives and they need to be allowed to use these services to ensure they can move forward. No one should suffer at all for any length of time, let alone throughout their life.

Simply apologising for wrongs is not enough. Words only mean so much.

Strong words must be followed up with strong actions. While an expression of sorrow may well be a legitimate feeling, this does not mean the torture is ‘solved’ or forgotten. There are still underlying issues which need addressing which can only be addressed fully through the pursuit of justice and reform.

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Beneath the Blindfold: an inspiring documentary on torture and rehabilitation

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.

Tessa Moll By Tessa, Communications Officer at IRCT

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Zero Dark Thirty is fiction; the reality is worse

US-based Witness Against Torture protest against the nomination of John Brennan to head the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Brennan has outspokenly condoned the use of rendition and torture. Photo by Justin Norman, available on Flickr through Creative Commons License.

US-based Witness Against Torture and others protest against the nomination of John Brennan to head the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Brennan has outspokenly condoned the use of rendition and torture. Photo by Justin Norman, available on Flickr through Creative Commons License.

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.

Of course, as we now know, the U.S. has tortured anyways, with impunity.

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 Moll

Tessa is a Communications Officer at the IRCT.

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