Archive for category Voices

“The government needs to stop rape as a form of torture in the Congo”: IRCT member Freedom from Torture speaks out

In our latest blog we hear from Kolbassia Houssaou, coordinator of Freedom from Torture’s Survivors Speak OUT! Network – a group of torture survivors who draw on their experience of torture to influence decision-makers and raise public awareness of the challenges facing survivors.

Kolbassia talks about the challenges survivors face, and their role in the publication of Freedom from Torture’s latest report into rape and torture in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

fftlogoTorture is intended to silence its victims so it is therefore vital that people like me and the rest of the Survivors Speak OUT! Network at Freedom from Torture, have their voices heard. It is this that will ensure we are no longer seen as stigmatised victims but are instead recognised as having a vital role in finding durable solutions to end this practice.

The Survivor’s Speak OUT network is proud to add its voice in the international call for change in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where over twenty years armed conflict has fuelled sexual violence against women and a widespread culture of impunity for the perpetrators.

Although there is war in the eastern part of the country, it would be wrong to say that sexual violence in the DRC is limited to the war zone. Rape and other forms of sexual violence are happening even where there is “peace” and those suffering have, until now, been unjustly overlooked.

In fact most of the women featured in the report were based in Kinshasa, far away from the conflict zones, where sexual violence was used predominately as a form of torture in detention centres, not the battlefield.

By publishing this report, we hope to dispel the myth that rape is solely a by-product of war zones but instead to show that in fact there are increasing levels of persecutory rape among women who challenge the government in the DRC. Many of the women who feature in this report were arrested as a result of their political involvement or support for government opposition or their affiliation with women’s rights groups.

A woman who was raped by a government soldier recovers at the Heal Africa hospital in Goma. Picture courtesy of Freedom from Torture.

A woman who was raped by a government soldier recovers at the Heal Africa hospital in Goma. Picture courtesy of Freedom from Torture.

But regardless of where it is committed, the impact of rape and other forms of sexual violence are the same. Women across the DRC continue to suffer. The absence of facilities means they have nowhere to turn for advice, counselling or any kind of support.

Right now the infrastructure in place is failing to help these women and a distinct lack of implementation and insufficient resources mean that well-meaning initiatives are not bringing about practical change. The DRC’s adoption of the 2006 law against sexual violence and the promulgation of the law criminalising torture in 2011, while welcome, are simply not enough. The government needs to do much more to tackle these crimes.

The sexual violence documented in the report is based on doctor’s examinations of women raped and violated in the DRC. These acts constitute torture and must be considered as such.

If these crimes are to be prevented the perpetrators must be brought to justice, the judiciary must be strengthened, survivors must be fully supported, and the population must be educated about sexual violence.

We cannot just raise awareness of the victim’s rights: there must also be legal enforcement to support this.

All the members of the Survivors Speak OUT! Network hope this report will shine a light on the suffering of women in the DRC and bring about change.

We hope the DRC government will take measures to support and protect women throughout the country. We hope the government will improve the conditions of detention centres and allow regular visits by international monitoring bodies. We hope the UN will help end the conflict in the east of the country which gives the DRC government an excuse to hide behind.
We welcome the UK’s leadership of the initiative to stop sexual violence in conflict and hope this report proves how vital it is that in the DRC this effort is expanded beyond the conflict zone and throughout the whole country.

There is no quick fix to the issues women face in the DRC but this report shows the alternative – a country where women continue to suffer sexual torture in silence, without access to rehabilitation, legal recourse, and where abusers continue to act without consequence.

To read more about the DRC report from Freedom from Torture, click this link.

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The UK has still not learned its lesson that torture is wrong

Back in January 2014, upon the presentation of a 250-page report to the International Criminal Court (ICC) detailing the role of British troops in torturing Iraqi citizens, the British Ministry of Defence strongly disputed evidence that soldiers had any role in torture during the war on terror.

“We reject the suggestion the UK’s Armed Forces – who operate in line with domestic and international law – have systematically tortured detainees,” said a spokesperson at the time.

But following the recent report that the ICC will investigate Iraq war crimes claims – and the recent news from the Independent newspaper where a British resident, Ahmed Diini, alleges torture in Egypt by MI5 – it seems the involvement of Britain’s security forces in torture could be becoming harder to deny.

And for a nation assumed to be a good example of human rights defence, the increased reports linking Britain to torture paints a troubling picture where human rights are second-best to assuring national security.

Let’s turn our attention to perhaps the biggest case: that of Baha Mousa, a case which in 2007 led to the prosecution and imprisonment of British soldier Donald Payne who was found guilty of war crimes. A 26-year-old Iraqi receptionist, Baha died in custody in Basra in 2003 following hours of torture – some of which was filmed by the torturers and their colleagues.

The full extent of Baha’s injuries – which included broken ribs, damaged kidneys, a broken nose, and clear signs of being held in stress positions for over a day – were only finally reported in 2011 following a public inquiry. By this time the guilty soldier Mr Payne, the main torturer in the case, had been out of prison for three-years, having served his one-year sentence.

At this time the Defence Ministry vowed to stop these instances of torture. And in 2013 the commitment to ending torture was echoed by the head of MI5 Andrew Parker, who told MPs that the security services “do not participate, incite, encourage or condone mistreatment or torture and that is absolute.” The recent claims though dispute this commitment to end torture once more.

It therefore seems that Britain is not learning the lesson that torture is never justified. While assuring national security is important, ensuring safety cannot be done via torture.

The ‘ticking timebomb’ scenario – where torturing someone who has hidden a hypothetical bomb yields results – does not happen in reality. Torture, simply, is not the right way to investigate or to prove anything.

And whether or not all of these emerging claims of torture prove to be true, it is clear the issue of torture, and the steps that need to be taken to prevent it, are not being taken seriously among many in a country which often applauds its own human rights record.

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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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