Archive for category Voices

World Without Torture joins new campaign to tell the stories of Syrian refugees

A shot of the ECRE campaign website

A shot of the ECRE campaign website

To date, just 81,000 Syrians have sought protection in the EU, Norway and Switzerland; representing only 3% of the total number of people who have fled.

With a death toll of 130,000, and refugee numbers expected to escalate to 4 million by the end of 2014, the Syrian conflict is the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time.

To call on European leaders to protect refugees, and to alert the public to the sheer numbers of Syrians suffering from conflict, the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) is launching today a new campaign entitled “Europe Act Now”  which utilises social media to spread the voices of Syrian refugees throughout the globe.

Some of the refugees who will be tweeting throughout the campaign

Some of the refugees who will be tweeting throughout the campaign

The unique campaign sees human rights groups, celebrities, politicians, and anyone else who wants to help, donating their Twitter accounts to ECRE for a week. ECRE will in turn give tweeting access to a Syrian refugee who will tell his/her story over a particular number of days, determined by the person who donates the Twitter account.

We at World Without Torture are joining the campaign on 10 and 11 March 2014 from 0900hrs, so remember to check our Twitter account (available here) to read an unique insight into the life of a Syrian refugee.

ECRE hopes the campaign, which will last for four-months until World Refugee Day on 20 June, will raise awareness of the barriers that refugees face when entering Europe and what can be done to reunite families affected by the conflict.

To follow our Twitter feed simply click this link, where we shall be handing over our Twitter to hear the stories of Syrian refugees on Monday 10th and Tuesday 11th March.

And for more information on ECRE and the “Europe Act Now” campaign, click this link.

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Change in Bahrain is needed now, not in another three years

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.

Bahrain anniversary protests (picture courtesy of BCHR)

The scene at the Bahrain anniversary protests (picture courtesy of BCHR)

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.”

The homepage image of happiness from Bahrain.com, managed by the Bahrain Economic Development Board

Happiness on Bahrain.com, managed by the Bahrain Economic Development Board

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.

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Bringing torture to a cinema near you

A shot from critically-acclaimed The Act of Killing

A shot from critically-acclaimed The Act of Killing

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.

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Torture rehabilitation in the Western Balkans – stories, challenges and the importance of working together

(left to right) Natasa Cvetkovic Jovic of IAN, IRCT Regonal Coordinator for Europe Mushegh Yekmalyan, Dragan Jugovic of “Dusha"

(left to right) Natasa Cvetkovic Jovic of IAN, IRCT Regional Coordinator for Europe Mushegh Yekmalyan, Dragan Jugovic of “Dusha”

As part of his work as IRCT Regional Coordinator for Europe, we hear from Mushegh Yekmalyan as he travelled to the small town of Petrovac, Montenegro, to discuss anti-torture work from three torture rehabilitation centres and around 20 other human rights organisations in the Western Balkans.

Meeting new people is always an exciting experience, especially when you get the chance to hear from fellow human rights defenders and how the work we are all part of has aided rehabilitation, recovery and revival among people and communities.

The three-day roundtable meeting, organised by the International Aid Network (IAN), an IRCT member, was the final event of a three-year torture prevention project in the Western Balkans.

Torture survivors were present at the meeting. It was particularly moving to hear the problems of de-humanisation in their stories, the help provided by rehabilitation centres to mend the damage torture causes to families and communities, and who should be providing the rehabilitative services in the region.

The problem of de-humanisation

In many legislations, mentally disabled people have no right of appealing an assessment of their mental disability – an assessment often made by doctors who may have even not seen them and have come to a conclusion on the basis of some paperwork that was done by others.

The same is also true about the justice system where judges often do not see the person alleged to be mentally disabled, so just base their judgements on an opinion of a doctor.

The shocking reality that only the legal guardian has a right to appeal such decisions constitutes the very fact of de-humanisation as the person has no right to protect himself/herself when the rest of the world seems against you.

This situation was abused thousands of times in authoritarian regimes to de-humanise political opponents and dissidents, who were not just imprisoned but were simply sent to the psychiatric wards where nobody could see them and hear from them. Unfortunately this loop hole still exists in modern times and there is always a risk of having a person locked up in a psychiatric ward because of human error or abuse.

Addressing the far-reaching effects of torture

The crime of torture can not only traumatise the direct victims, but also their families and communities. In general, after years of repression, conflict and war, regular support networks and structures have often been broken or destroyed.

Providing support to survivors of torture and trauma can help reconstruct broken societies. Rehabilitation centres therefore play a key role in promoting democracy, co-existence and respect for human rights. They provide support and hope, and are a talisman against terror and torture.

It was fascinating to hear how the IRCT members in the region are engaging with communities damaged by conflict and torture in the Balkans. Much of the work focuses on remote villages where social workers, accompanied by doctors, are frequent visitors to families affected by torture in an attempt to make the survivors of torture feel integrated into their community. This work is often supported by UN agencies and other donors, and much work is being accomplished thanks to these close ties.

The war-torn Balkans have numerous stories from torture survivors who were former prisoners of war, or civilians caught in the crossfire. The victims not only suffered from the violence of conflict, but also humiliation from their communities because of their victim status.

The responsibility to provide rehabilitation

But who should offer support and provide rehabilitation? In many contexts where the survivors of torture are still within the same country and even often within the same municipality where the torture happened, a need of proper protection of the survivor and the caregiver must be guaranteed. However, in many contexts where the state has a blind eye to the problems of torture – and perhaps even supports the punitive actions of police force and paramilitary – the support must come from human rights organisations and networks working outside the state structure. This is why the rehabilitation centres not only in the Balkans but also across the globe are so important – they provide help where it seems like there is no room for hope.

Many IRCT member centres are on frontline and often are overwhelmed by horror stories of war, violence, torture and ongoing brutalities. But collective understanding of the importance of the work they do at meetings like this help them to carry on and help those in need.

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Working with the media to end torture

A screenshot of the iPad magazine from Al Jazeera

A screenshot of the iPad magazine from Al Jazeera

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).

A picture of Damchoe's story in the magazine

A picture of Damchoe’s story in the magazine

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.

For further stories from survivors of torture, click here for the ‘Testimonies Wall’ on the IRCT website

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Looking back at 2013

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.

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One Syrian family’s story of rebuilding their life

A young Syrian refugee girl slowly makes her way across a pipe over a pile of rubbish in an informal settlement in Fayda outside of Zahle, Lebanon. ©UNHCR/ S. Baldwin

A young Syrian refugee girl slowly makes her way across a pipe over a pile of rubbish in an informal settlement in Fayda outside of Zahle, Lebanon.
©UNHCR/ S. Baldwin

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.

You can read the full story here

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Voices of torture: Survivors tell their stories

A picture of the new wall

A picture of the new wall

To enact our vision of a world without torture, the torture rehabilitation movement is led by the human rights defenders on the front lines – figures who may hail from the medical field, the legal field, and right through to activists and anti-torture advocates.

But the core voice from all this work comes from the survivors of torture and the families of the victims. Guided by their experiences – and by providing a space for their experiences — the IRCT methodology of holistic rehabilitation can flourish.

So today we are launching a new space to share their stories and amplify their voices. A new Testimonies Wall will serve as a platform for survivors of torture, their families, and the global torture fighters to speak out against torture with the ultimate aim of ending torture across the globe.

Fourteen stories launch the wall, including two new in-depth features with two survivors of torture from very different locations.

The first is Veli Sacilik whose harrowing story of a prison siege in Turkey is still very much in the European spotlight today. After losing an arm in the siege and subsequent torture, Veli and his fellow inmates have gone on to campaign to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for compensation and justice in their disturbing, shocking case. Sadly, now over a decade later, the case for compensation and justice is still being deliberated, but Veli’s continual campaigning is not only yielding results but is demonstrating the violence that exists in the Turkish prison network.

The second story comes from Carmen Kcomt, a former judge in Peru who was met with violent harassment and intimidation when trying to rightly expose the paternity of a young girl revealed to be the secret daughter of the future president of Peru. Carmen boldly applied the law and listened to her legal training at all times, despite sustained intimidation and torture both physically and mentally from a variety of sources. It is a story of exposing the truth, escaping fear and rebuilding a life in a new country.

The testimonies page will be updated with new stories over time so check back for these unique and insightful insights into torture, rehabilitation and justice.

Simply click the link to read the stories.

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Google on torture: the world is still divided

A poster promoting the UN Women ad campaign investigating sexism on Google (image supplied by UN Women)

A poster promoting the UN Women ad campaign investigating sexism on Google (image supplied by UN Women)

Inspired by the brilliant but appalling UN Women ad campaign we’ve decided to find out what Google, or its infamous algorithm, says about torture.

Type “torture is…” or “torture should…” and the results, calculated after a few milliseconds, are abysmal yet unsurprising – the world is still divided. “Torture is justified” and “torture should be legal” are followed by “torture is wrong” and “torture should be banned.” Fortunately, “torture is ineffective” comes right before “torture is good”.

What does the algorithm tell us about specific methods of torture? Believe it or not, “waterboarding is baptizing terrorists with freedom”. Absurdities aside, the two top results, again, were predictable: “waterboarding isn’t torture” comes right before “waterboarding is torture.”

We know very well that data on torture is difficult to get, and few polls measure the public opinion toward torture. Although Google’s autocomplete isn’t a perfect picture of the reality it scarily hints to it.

In an article published earlier this year about sympathies towards torture in the United States, Amy Zegart writes:

“Americans are significantly more pro-torture now than during the Bush years. In 2007, 27 percent of Americans surveyed in a Rasmussen poll said the United States should torture prisoners captured in the war against terrorism. In an August 2012 YouGov national poll I commissioned, 41 percent said they approved of torture, a gain of 14 points.”

The poll results are not too distant from the algorithm’s result. One negative result followed one positive shows that public opinion is highly polarised. As explained by Arwa Mahdawi in the Guardian, Google’s autocomplete feature anticipates what you’re looking for, based on what other people have searched for in the past.

She also explains that, “autocomplete suggestions differ according to variables such as region and time, but there tends to be a degree of consistency across results.” Try it out. Then let us know what’s like in your part of the world.

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Middle-East’s blind spot: for how long can we ignore Bahrain’s “inconvenient revolution”?

Maryamal-KhawajaAmidst the Copenhagen bustle sits 26-year-old Bahraini human rights defender Maryam al-Khawaja who, on the face of it, appears to be oblivious to her anxieties. These are perhaps the only two minutes to relax from her work at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.

Maryam has just been discussing her father, prominent human rights defender Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who has been imprisoned since April 2011 for participating in the pro-democracy protests which swept the nation of Bahrain.

Tortured ever since – including beatings so severe he underwent urgent surgery to reconstruct his jaw in 2011 – Abdulhadi’s case looks increasingly desperate. But Maryam manages to distance herself from this well.

“It is another case indicative of the repression exercised by the rulers of Bahrain,” she says flippantly. “In 2011, I wrote a report about a man who had been beaten to the point that no one recognised him.

“I was told at the end of the report that the man who had been tortured was my father. My initial reaction was not to break down but to finish the report. There are so many other torture cases and personalising them does not help my work. You need to normalise it. In my head, most of the time my father is not even in prison.”

But the fact is that along with thousands of other pro-democracy protestors, Maryam’s father, and sister Zainab, wallow in the horrifying conditions of Bahraini prison with little chance of a fair trial or basic human rights.

“There is torture in the prisons,” says Maryam. “The international community focus so much on improving conditions for prisoners when, in reality, these political prisoners should not be detained in the first place. Their release should be called on and they should have assured prison qualities until that point.”

The ‘failed’ revolution?

Yet pressure on the ruling family of Bahrain to accept their shameful human rights record is something which Maryam cynically believes will not be applied by the international community. “People seem to assume that somehow the Bahrain revolution failed but I do not think it is fair to assess the revolution of Bahrain as a ‘failed’ revolution,” she says. “It is just an inconvenient revolution – a revolution which is happening in a country which is solidly linked to the interests of the West in terms of oil, trading and so on that it would prove problematic to recognise as an active, powerful movement.”

We’re talking with each other in the same week that Syria has dominated the news – a humanitarian crisis which has seen millions of people seek refuge in nearby countries.

In this field of vision, Bahrain has become lost. The revolutionary protests which screened all over the world almost three years ago in early 2011 seem long forgotten.

“Bahrain is such a controlled country that now the protests are rarely seen. People are fearful that if they go to the wrong street, or even to the shops in their area, they will be arrested, tear gassed, tortured and so on. They therefore do not have the safety, inclination or room to go into the streets and protest like you would perhaps see elsewhere. And that’s one reason why it does not get coverage. The ruling family of Bahrain know this.”

The Bahraini royal family, the House of Al Khalifa, assumed power approximately 230 years ago and have yet to relinquish it. Indeed half of the current Parliament in Bahrain are aligned to the family and the country’s only unelected Prime Minister, who has been in his position for 43 years, is related to the family also, being the uncle to the current self-declared king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.

It is this monopolised rule which led to the protests in April 2011 – protests which have, in fact, been occurring regularly since the 1920s’ and before.

Sectarian myth

In the 1950s’ a group called Intifadat al-Haya’a, led by the religious leaders of both the Sunni and Shia communities, started an uprising for civil rights. At this time Bahrain was still a British protectorate so with the help of the British the Bahraini regime crushed this opposition and arrested all of the leading figures..

“The Al Khalifa family knew that if the Sunni and Shia communities stayed united it could spell the end of their rule,” explains Maryam. “So since the 1950s’ the family has been focusing their attention on marginalizing the majority of the country, the Shia community, thereby sidelining their biggest threat. They created this ‘us and them’ fashion through labeling the Shia community more and more, to make it impossible for them to integrate with the Sunni community and, as such, crush any uprising. This is not saying that Sunnis benefit entirely from the Bahrain rulers, because they do not. But it is just one move into the ruling party’s idea to change the demographic of the country so it is majority Sunni rather than Shia.”

This sectarianism is, according to Maryam, just another tool of gaining control by the royal family.

“The family see everyone as an enemy yet portray to Western media that there is a sectarian problem, not a problem between the rulers and the people,” she says.

“It is simply not true. Bahrain is not a sectarian problem. It’s a human rights problem. People, no matter who they are, have no room for freedom of expression, right to safety and so on. People are beaten, tortured and detained on a mass scale – and why? All because they want to exercise their human rights.”

But what can be done to bring change in Bahrain and, in the first instance, call the human rights record of the Al Khalifa family to attention?

International pressure

“You do not need military feet on the ground,” states Maryam. “What you need is pressure on the Bahraini government to accept the evidence we already have, in relation to sanctions against individuals like visa rejections, torture documentation and so on. What you need is for the countries who claim that they promote human rights and democracy to uphold these values – not among their enemies, but among their friends. Bahrain is a friend which is not upholding basic human values, but that would be an embarrassing thing to admit.

“At least in Egypt there is a sphere to go out on the streets and protest. But in Bahrain, public space is controlled in a suffocating manner . In that sense it is not really similar to other protests in the Middle East and is actually more similar to Rwanda – not that there will be a genocide, but there will come a time when something which as been silently bubbling will explode into the open. There is absolutely no room for expression, for freedom of speech or to manoeuvre.”

Fittingly, in the same way I misinterpreted the calmness in Maryam at the coffee shop, it seems Bahrain has a hidden undercurrent of turmoil.

“Everything seems alright and as if changes have been made. But there is always something happening underneath [in Bahrain],” says Maryam. “Distancing ourselves from this turmoil only makes it worse. The time is now for the international community to apply pressure on Bahrain and bring the human rights abuses to light.”

Written by Ashley Scrace, Communications Officer at the IRCT

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