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“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.
If you define Britain by its oft lauded stereotypes, one may assume a peaceful, upstanding nation which obeys rules, regulations and notions of fair play. Yet for 30 years Ian Cobain has dedicated his life to exposing the secrets, the lies, the inconvenient truths often buried deep beneath a British façade.
An investigative journalist with the Guardian newspaper, his reports into the UK’s counter-terrorism practices since 9/11 have won a number of major awards including the Martha Gellhorn Prize and the Paul Foot Award for investigative journalism, as well as a range of Amnesty International awards.
In 2012 Ian published his first book, Cruel Britannia, which analysed how the British government has repeatedly and systematically resorted to torture, through years of British colonial rule, to World War Two and to the War on Terror.
And while we may not like to think of it, torture is something which Ian believes is still practiced by the UK and other Western countries often perceived to be upholding human rights.
“I’m still shocked by some of the matters I discover. But I’m no longer surprised,” says Ian.
“After 9/11, I knew by January 2002 that the US was mistreating its prisoners. Photographs showing shackled men, in gloves, ear defenders and blacked-out goggles, being dragged across the ground at Guantanamo, were published by the US military. That was a pretty good clue [that torture of prisoners was happening].
“The same month, while I was in Kabul, Red Cross officials told me that prisoners were being tortured at Kandahar. I was terribly shocked. The British government and its intelligence agencies claim they didn’t discover this for years. What nonsense.”
A report on the condition of detainees in 2012, ten years after Ian learned of torture in Kandahar, still lists the southern city in Afghanistan as one of the areas where detained individuals are routinely mistreated by officials.
“At the time it was difficult to comprehend that the British government would draw up policies that resulted in the torture, but that’s what happened,” Ian explains.
“It took me a while longer to understand the level of UK support and participation in the rendition programme. More time made me realise that the UK was complicit in kidnappings and torture during operations in which the US barely played any part.”
For Ian, the ill-treatment by the UK of those in detention, particularly in situations of conflict, is nothing new.
“British military processed and mistreated their prisoners in Northern Ireland in 1971 in precisely the same way that another generation of the British military was doing it in Basra in 2003,” says Ian.
“Authorities use it to intimidate, to coerce, to humiliate, to extract information, or to obtain so-called confessions. But it also creates reservoirs of hatred that don’t run dry for generations. And nobody can quite predict what will flow from those reservoirs.”
Hostility though is something that Ian has felt from authoritative figures, many of whom try to deter his work and the work of human rights defenders across the globe.
“Some people are hostile, but I don’t really care. I’ve been threatened once or twice, by people in ‘authority’, but I’m not in any danger,” he says.
Documenting and exposing torture is a sensitive issue for everyone involved. While the journalist or human rights activist exposing a case of torture might be in danger of reprisals, the survivor risks that and risks re-traumatisation by retelling the experience. However, documentation enables victims to prove the veracity of their allegations and thus increases the pressure on perpetrators to fulfill their obligations under international law. Torture is hardly a positive representation of a group or a country, particularly one like the UK.
Rehabilitating victims of torture, helping them recover from the trauma and become advocates for justice and truth, is one pivotal way to change views on torture in everyone’s minds.
“A few prosecutions of people in powerful positions might concentrate the minds of the next generation,” Ian adds.
While working on the 26 June Global Report, in particular on the list of States which have and have not ratified the UN Convention against Torture, I noticed something peculiar.
From the short list of States which have not ratified the Convention — of which many are microstates — three of them are members of the Portuguese-speaking community of countries, namely Angola, Guinea-Bissau and São Tomé and Príncipe.
I am Portuguese and I am from a generation of young people who want to completely break away from the hostilities that marked this group of countries in the 60s and 70s.
This generation dreams of a true community of Lusophone countries that uses the shared heritage as a tool to advance human development and cultural enrichment.
Disregard for basic human rights does not and cannot be part of this new Lusophone community, the home of nearly 250 million people, where more than a million people already exchanged their country for another in the community.
That is why I decided to write an open letter to the leaders of the CPLP (in Portuguese only), the Lusophone equivalent to the Commonwealth or the Francophonie, calling for concerted efforts towards the ratification of the Convention by the three remaining countries, so that the whole community can adhere together to the cause for a world without torture.
Fabio is a Communications Officer and Assistant Editor of Torture Journal at IRCT.
Editor’s Note: In her first piece Line explained some of the challenges facing the torture rehabilitation movement in Latin America that she heard about at the IRCT Regional Seminar. Here she explains how the regional gathering helped those staff address the issues.
So how can a meeting help ameliorate the growing security concerns for human rights defenders in Latin America?
Through presentations, workshops and discussions, the professionals at the IRCT Regional Seminar in Mexico City were able to share their knowledge, experiences and challenges. Through this, they — the doctors, psychosocial counsellors, and lawyers in the fight against torture — learned from each other, discussed the challenges to their work and, thus, developed new strategies to avoid risk.
As such, a specific goal of one workshop was to develop security plans at national and regional levels.
One strategy discussed was to improve the communication amongst the rehabilitation centres in the region to quickly enable mobilisation and reaction in response to urgent security developments.
Plans were also set forth for day-to-day measures to be taken when working in fragile security situations. These included security measures at work, in the home, when travelling, and in the event of detention by state authorities. Among examples of these daily precautions were: changing the hours of arriving and leaving work; not providing sensitive information over the phone; trying to position desktops away from windows and never participating in public demonstrations alone. And, in the event of a threat or attack: making sure to have extra clothes, keys and money in another place; memorising telephone numbers to ask for help from trusted persons; knowing of possible safe spaces to go, such as a church, a public place or a hostel.
Many of the participants have lived through internal armed conflicts and dictatorships; some are torture survivors themselves. They are not strangers to risk.
In addition to developing security plans, the meeting provided a space for sharing ideas on self-care for trauma and anti-torture professionals, sharing best practices on documenting and treating the effects of torture. Above all, the meeting provided a forum in which support and solidarity were exchanged.
After three intense days, the seminar ended with a final discussion and evaluation; there was much more to talk about and many challenges ahead, but the spirit, the humour and a firm decision to continue the crucial work in the fight against torture seemed intact and strengthened.
Line is a Project Coordinator, focusing on the Latin American partners and the NSA project. The regional seminar was funded by the European Commission.
Hanging on the wall in Steen Holger Hansen’s office is a hunk of twisted metal.
“It’s part of a German aeroplane shot down by the Americans during World War Two,” he notes. “It was found in Southern Denmark just ten years ago, although it crashed more than 60 years ago. I wrote the death certificate for the German pilot, and he was finally buried properly.”
Dr Hansen’s office is lined with similar objects; objects that, for him, tell stories. As a forensic pathologist at the University of Copenhagen, he is in some ways a story-teller, and a historian. His mission to Cambodia last year was of particular historical significance: he had to find evidence of torture, evidence that victims had been brutalised by state authorities, from more than 30 years ago, during the Khmer Rouge era.
Dr Hansen took part in the forensic investigation mission to Cambodia last year as one of three health and medical experts, which included Marina Staiff of Switzerland and Pierre Duterte of France. Dr Staiff and Dr Duterte were tasked with the psychological assessment of 11 clients of the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO); Dr Hansen was there to conduct the physical examination of those clients.
When he traveled last year to Cambodia, he says, he approached the task – that of examining those claiming torture to verify their allegations – through near-endless research. He read all the books he could find on the country’s devastating history, the four years of Khmer Rouge rule from 1974 to 1979, during which half the population was killed in labour camps and through extrajudicial executions and torture.
He also visited the infamous Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former high school turned torture centre during the Khmer Rouge period. There he noted particular leg shackles – metal bars in a D-shape. One part of this story.
He was particularly pessimistic about this task, he says. He read crushing personal testimonies from that four-year peiriod. But he was in doubt about his possible role in helping them.
“This was more than 30 years ago, and I thought I would probably not be able to do anything. Even with very recent torture, there can be difficulty in finding physical confirmation in an examination.”
Getting the evidence
TPO, an IRCT member, sits in a tall, modern building in the capital Phnom Penh. They offer a vast array of psychosocial services, in particular for victims of sexual and gender-based violence and victims of the genocide of the 1970s. They are providing assistance to victims of the genocide who have come forth as witnesses in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), the tribunal that, since 2007, has been tasked with trying former Khmer Rouge officials on crimes against humanity, including war crimes, murder, torture and genocide. There are many thousands of survivors of the genocide who have registered as witnesses in the cases.
The 11 clients that the three doctors examined were among these thousands registered in ‘Case 002′ at the ECCC. The hybrid tribunal brings together the Cambodia judiciary and international experts to assist in the ongoing trials of Khmer Rouge leaders. Only one case – Case 001 – has concluded. The ECCC found Khang Khek Leu, often called ‘Duch’, guilty of crimes against humanity, including murder and torture. During the regime, Leu ran the Tuol Sleng prison.
Dr Hansen tells me that Tuol Sleng, now a museum, provided much of the research he conducted alongside the examination of the 11 clients. There, he says, an estimated 20,000 people were detained during those four years of whom there are only seven known survivors . The rest were killed, either through devastating incarceration, torture, and murder or labour camps. But it was in Tuol Sleng that Hansen saw the D-shaped leg shackles. These particular shackles were also depicted in the art work of Vann Nath, one of the handfuls of survivors of Toul Sleng.
On all of the clients that claimed they were shackled during their torture were small scars along their ankles. They were extremely faint. But they were there.
“These marks were consistent with their testimonies. We say that findings are consistent with claims of torture. We do not directly say, ‘Yes, these people were tortured.’ That is the job of the judiciary. But yes, all the shackle scars were highly consistent with the allegations.”
Further clients had marks of burns caused by metal rods. Others had marks from arms binds around their elbows. The physical scars of torture, nearly 30 years after they occurred, still testify to their agonizing experiences at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Old scars can still tell stories.
Forensic evidence at the ECCC
It is not known yet if this forensic evidence will be used in the ECCC in Case 002. Three top Khmer Rouge leaders are one trial: Ieng Sary, former foreign minister; Nuon Chea, the regime’s second in command; and Khieu Samphan, a former head of state. A fourth, Ieng Thirith, who was the social affairs minister, was found unfit to stand trial, reportedly because she has Alzheimer’s, and was dismissed from the case. All four are more than 80 years old.
Although it remains a possibility, Dr Hansen is doubtful over whether he will be called to testify to the tribunal. The use of forensic documentation is still not well-enough understood throughout the world, even among the judiciary, and with a witness list numbering well over a thousand, there is still much evidence to go through. The process allowed anyone with an allegation to come forth, provide testimony and register as a witness; it included allegations of war crimes, genocide, murder, rape, other sexual violence, forced marriage, forced labour, and massive accounts of neglect resulting in starvation and death from untreated medical needs.
However, regardless of whether or not he testifies, Dr Hansen remains extremely positive about the experience. “We now know that you can confirm torture allegations that are nearly 30 years old. We know that we should not discount the possibility of finding forensic evidence even from such old cases. People often ask me, ‘How can you read about these cases?’ People say, ‘It’s just so terrible to read this.’ It is terrible. But we should read and learn, and then you can help. What I’m saying is just that these stories should never be forgotten.’
Tessa, a US citizen living in Denmark, is Communications Officer at the IRCT.
We may not be the biggest fans of Spandex, but the IRCT staff can certainly get out and run.
Ten staff members (and many supporters) from the IRCT’s Secretariat office participated at the annual Copenhagen DHL Relay Race last week, joining more than 125,000 other runners in the city’s Fælledpark.
Each day, 5,000 teams of five people donned their running shorts and company shirt to race five kilometres through the park. Two teams from IRCT joined this year, racing against teams from the Royal Danish Post Office and Telia Mobile. Both groups from IRCT managed to finish in less than 2 hours 40 minutes!
Check out photos below of our teams:
I feel privileged and honoured to have been appointed to the position of Secretary-General for the IRCT. I look forward to helping to shape the development of this dynamic movement over the years ahead, building on strong foundations laid in the past.
While being from Holland and an economist by training, I have in fact lived and worked most of my professional life outside of my country, engaged in the areas of development, humanitarian work and consumer protection. My wish to contribute to the struggle against poverty and injustice has led me to work in many different countries, from Zambia to Chile and Nicaragua, from Mexico to Vietnam and El Salvador for a range of organizations, like ILO, UNHCR, Oxfam and Consumers International. The common thread in these assignments of working for justice and equity has been the issue of rights; be it labour rights and standards, rights of refugees and migrants, the rights-based approach to development or the fulfillment of consumer rights. Over the years I evolved from the economist I was “meant” to be, taking on increasing responsibilities as a general manager and leader of people.
Thus I see my leadership of the IRCT Secretariat in Copenhagen as the logical next step. On the one hand, because the organisation is focused on the issue of justice and rights: the right to health, the right to rehabilitation, the right to a world free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. On the other hand, because the IRCT is working on this as a truly global movement, with strength and legitimacy based on the work of its member organisations from all over the world.
From my predecessor, I am taking over the leadership of an organisation with a sound international reputation, a solid democratic structure and a stable funding base. My challenges are to build on this; to increase the breadth and depth of the work of the IRCT; to further increase and diversify the income of the organisation ; and, above all to support and strengthen the members, both individually and in their regional groupings.
The IRCT exists because of its members. The global membership provides the legitimacy to the Secretariat, as representative of a worldwide movement, to advocate and campaign for the right to rehabilitation, to fight impunity and to influence international policy in regards of prevention.
Of course, at the level of the member organisations the IRCT best reaches its ultimate beneficiaries, torture survivors and those at risk of torture. Everything that the movement does should be geared – directly or indirectly – towards this.
And the effectiveness of our work – the results of rehabilitation – aren’t something we should keep quiet about. We must remind the world not only that rehabilitation is a right, but, that it is effective. That it is not only effective at the individual level, but, it helps families and communities, and is an essential building block for whole societies coming out of a post-conflict situation.
Our work is essential to the functioning of stable, transparent, accountable, and democratic societies.
I am looking forward to working together with their representatives in the IRCT’s governance bodies to contribute to the impact and effectiveness of IRCT as a membership organisation, and to strengthen the individual members and IRCT as a global movement. I am looking forward to helping bring about the IRCTs vision: a world without torture.
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part look at Brazil’s recent review by the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture.
The United Nations examination of Brazil’s detention system is over, and in the spirit of transparency, Brazil has released the report produced by the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT).
The SPT first examined the country’s legal and institutional frameworks, healthcare system, impunity, corruption, and reprisals. It then inspected Brazil’s detention system and the conditions of penitentiary institutions.
Throughout its inspection, the SPT observed situations of overcrowding. “In almost all facilities visited the number of inmates exceeded the facility’s maximum capacity.” Extreme overcrowding was also reported in vehicles during the transportation of detainees.
With the exception of a few positive cases, persons detained in police facilities are often held in “dilapidated, filthy and stuffy cells, with inadequate or no sanitation, and inadequate or no bedding provided. In the case of prolonged police detention, there are consistent allegations of deprivation of food and water, as well as the lack of access to fresh air and exercise.”
The military and civil police were reported to threaten, kick and punch. Such beatings “take place in police custody, but also on the street, inside private homes, or in secluded outdoor areas, at the moment of arrest. The torture and ill-treatment was described to the SPT as gratuitous violence, as a form of punishment, to extract confessions, and as a means of extortion.”
Children reported similar beatings and a female prisoner reported that she had been raped by two police officers while in police custody.
As for treatment in police custody, one inmate stated to the SPT that the methods of torture used during his interrogation included suffocation by placing his head in a plastic bag, electric shocks and psychological threats.
“…one detainee stated that while in the custody of the civil police for a period of two days he was held in a dirty cell of approximately 8 m² holding 20 men, and deprived of food and water. When the detainees complained and requested food and water, they were beaten.”
According to the Subcommittee, this is not the first time these recommendations have been made to Brazil. Even though progress is clear in several areas, many of the problems encountered by the SPT are similar to the ones found in past visits.
Are things going to change?
Brazil will soon respond to the SPT report – it is expected to be submitted by the Brazilian government by 8th August.
According to Ana Paula Moreira, general-coordinator for the fight against torture at the department of human rights, several Brazilian ministries have been coordinating action on this front. A particular focus is the national support program to the prison system, which aims at ending some of the problems pointed out by the SPT, namely that of prison overcrowding. For this goal, Brazil will invest approx. 440 million Euros.
There are grounds to believe Brazil will pursue the recommendations in the report. The publication of the report itself is a key step and demonstrates Brazil’s commitment against torture and willingness to engage in dialogue with the SPT.
Fabio is a Communications Officer and Assistant Editor of Torture Journal at IRCT.
Fighting against torture and other human rights violations puts defenders at great personal risk; sharing their stories can help
Just over two years ago - on 6 July 2010 – Dr Germán Antonio Ramírez Herrera was assassinated outside of his office in Los Ríos province, Ecuador. A forensic doctor and expert, Dr Herrera had been documenting cases of torture with PRIVA, a local IRCT member centre.
According to reports, three individuals in a car and a fourth on a motorcycle were seen by witnesses at the scene. Dr Herrera was shot twice – once in his mouth and once in his stomach. He was leaving his office at around noon on that day, the same day that PRIVA, an IRCT member centre, was presenting the doctor’s findings to the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions. Dr Herrera had previously received numerous threats as a result of his documentation and reporting of torture and extrajudicial killings in Ecuadorian prisons.
Human rights defenders are a group at near-constant risk: risk of torture, risk of enforced disappearance, harassment (including physical, mental or judicial). They often live at risk because they point to the crimes and human rights violations committed those in power – whether political, economic, or physical.
For those in the fight against torture, this can be particularly dangerous work. Human rights defenders may document, investigate and pursue torture allegations. And who are the torturers? Per definition, they are agents of the state, who likely have little interest in seeing these cases pursued.
Kalyapin has been interrogated by the Russian Special Investigation Department and has learned that criminal proceedings are being pursued. This, sadly, is not a first – Kalyapin last year was awarded the Front Line Defenders Award for Human Rights Defenders At-Risk. And the Interregional Committee Against Torture has participated in the last few years in the Joint Mobile Group, a conglomerated group of human rights defenders that investigate violations and crimes. After the murder of Natalya Estemirova, a Chechen human rights activist, the group was established to prevent further crimes against defenders.
With such risks ever-present, what we can all do is to highlight the defenders; we must highlight their work and sometimes their harassment to ensure their safety. The more well-known human rights defenders are, the more their work and threats are known around the world, the less likely it is that they will be attacked.
So for the safety of all human rights defenders, we ask those who read this blog or follow us or other organizations on Twitter or Facebook – spread the messages. Share urgent actions and shed light on the human rights defenders at-risk.
Scott is IRCT’s Head of Communications
This year, more than 80 organisations around the world commemorated the day with activities ranging from conferences to theatre performances. Hundreds of people joined the online observation of the day on Facebook and many more shared their messages in support of torture victims on Twitter.
The 26 June is over but the work against torture and in support of torture survivors must be carried out 365 days a year.
There are many ways you can get involved and support this work:
Donate to the IRCT and help rehabilitation centres around the world provide healing services to victims, their families and communities.
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