Posts Tagged Bahrain

Creating a world without torture: February in review

Despite being the shortest month of our calendar, February has been packed with important news stories, statements and developments across the anti-torture movement.

We summarise some of our most popular blogs, social media content and news releases below. Simply click the relevant links and pictures to read the full stories.

STTARS Survivors of Torture & Trauma Assistance & Rehabilitation Service, Australia

STTARS Survivors of Torture & Trauma Assistance & Rehabilitation Service, Australia

10 questions and answers about torture rehabilitation

Ever wondered what can be achieved through rehabilitation? Ever wanted to know exactly what can be done to help victims of torture overcome their past? Or have you simply questioned how many centres across the globe offer torture rehabilitation services?

This month we collected the top ten questions asked by our readers about anti-torture work and answered them with links to our work. Just click the picture or this link to read more.
 

IRCT President awarded Council of Europe prize

IRCT President Suzanne Jabbour

IRCT President Suzanne Jabbour

Another popular story this month came from the IRCT whose President, Suzanne Jabbour, has been awarded the prestigious North-South Prize from the Council of Europe in recognition of her lifelong commitment to preventing torture.

The award, which will be presented this Spring in Lisbon, Portugal, has a long list of famous previous winners including Kofi Annan and Bob Geldof.

Suzanne is overjoyed with her victory and we want to thank everyone who joined us in congratulating Suzanne on this award. Read the full story here.
 

‘Wheel of Torture’ shows more must be done to stop torture in the Philippines

Detainees can be subjected to torture such as “20 seconds Manny Pacman”  which means 20 seconds of nonstop punches. (Courtesy of the Commission on Human Rights)

Detainees can be subjected to torture such as “20 seconds Manny Pacman” which means 20 seconds of nonstop punches. (Courtesy of the Commission on Human Rights)

A prison guard takes a detainee from his or her cell, escorts them to a roulette-style wheel listing different methods of torture, and spins the wheel to determine just how much pain should be inflicted on the prisoner.

This ‘Wheel of Torture’, which uses torture as a game, came to light in the world media this month following an inspection of prisons in the Philippines and shocked human rights groups worldwide.

The practice not only showed us how torture is still being reinvented and adapted in sadistic ways, but also showed just how little is being done in the Philippines to stop torture. You can read our full blog on this, and the statement from human rights defenders in the country, by clicking this link.
 

‘Act of Killing’ BAFTA victory is important for anti-torture movement

A story we shared on Facebook this month garnered much attention – the vivid, hard-hitting documentary ‘The Act of Killing’ achieved must deserved recognition from the British Academy of Film, Television and Arts (BAFTA) this month, receiving the award for Best Documentary at the latest awards ceremony.

Click our status below to watch an interview with the filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer following the award.

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The challenges facing torture rehabilitation in northern Iraq

The logo for the new centre

The logo for the new centre

We caught up with IRCT member the Kirkuk Center for Torture Victims in Iraq this month to see what they are doing to help survivors of torture in the region.

The newest member of the IRCT movement, the Kirkuk Centre have extensive links across the north of the country to aid victims of torture from all backgrounds, from those affected by the war in Iraq, to the recent influx of Syrian refugees in the region.

It comes as part of our ‘On the Forefront’ series, which you can see all the entries for by clicking this link.
 

Tunisia passes new constitution

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Incredible news from Tunisia this month, who passed a new constitution promoting equal rights for women, freedom of religious expression, and freedom from torture – all ratified just three years after revolution.

We joined world leaders in congratulating Tunisia on this move which will hopefully push other contries to follow the lead.

Click here or the picture for more information.
 
 
 
 

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

Bahrain anniversary protests (picture courtesy of BCHR)

Bahrain anniversary protests (picture courtesy of BCHR)

However in Bahrain, which also experienced uprisings against the government three years ago, the situation of ill-treatment of protestors and limits to freedom of expression has not changed.

Protests continue on a daily basis, and the three-year anniversary since the beginning of the protests was tragically marked itself by further protests and excessive crackdowns from the authorities.

Bahrain needs to change now. It simply cannot wait any longer. Read the full story by clicking the picture or clicking 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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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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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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Voices from Bahrain: Persecuted doctors continue struggle with BRAVO

Dr Nabeel Hameed is a neurosurgeon, one of only three in the entire country of Bahrain. Yet Wednesday he was sentenced to three months in prison and $700 in fines for the conviction of “illegal gathering” — one of 23 health professionals convicted on these charges.

Dr Hameed was among the physicians, nurses and medical staff of Salamaniya Hospital arrested for treating anti-government protestors during the demonstrations at Pearl Roundabout in March 2011. Their charges included inciting sectarian hatred, promoting the overthrow of the government, harbouring weapons, illegally occupying the hospital, and theft of hospital equipment.

Dr Nabeel Hameed, a Bahraini neurosurgeon, has joined other persecuted doctors to start BRAVO, the Bahrain Rehabilitation and Anti-Violence Organization. Photo by Fabio Pereira.

During the brutal crackdown against the demonstrators, about 30 people were killed and hundreds injured, many of whom ended up in the largest hospital in the capital, Salamaniya.

On 15 March 2011, the Bahrain Defence Forces seized control of the hospital, eventually detaining and interrogating some 48 doctors, nurses, medics, ambulance drivers and other hospital staff. Many later came forth and reported that they were tortured while in detention – including Dr Hameed, who was arrested a month after the government seizure of the hospital and detained for about three months.

“We became automatic witnesses,” Hameed explained to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “That’s a problem. When we saw the protestors, straight away we became automatic witnesses. To take our credibility away, [they] accuse us of a crime.”

Hameed was accused of killing, rather than treating, a protester who had died at the hospital after his care. The interrogators claimed he had done so to tarnish the public image of Bahrain.

International human rights organisations, including the IRCT, Amnesty International and Physicians for Human Rights, as well as other groups such as the World Medical Association (WMA), condemned the arrest and detention of medical staff in Bahrain.

“While various criminal charges were brought it appears that the major offence was treating all the patients who presented for care, including leaders and members of the rebellion…” WMA wrote in their statement. The global organisation condemned the acts of the Bahraini government, saying it violated the hospital staff’s commitment to medical neutrality.

“If we help others, maybe we can also help ourselves”

The Bahrain Rehabilitation and Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO) emerged largely from the controversial targeting of doctors and medical staff. Four of the founders were physicians at Salmaniya medical centre.

“We started [BRAVO] out of a need,” he explains. “In some ways, we thought that if we can help others, maybe we can also help ourselves.”

Within a year of being established, BRAVO has already set up three programmes. They provide treatment for eye injuries, a devastatingly common occurrence now in Bahrain as buckshot is a common weapon used against protesters. Victims are, for example, given a glass eye and provided with therapy to train the remaining eye. They have also set up group therapy sessions for victims of sexual harassment and assault. Finally, they have a psychotherapy programme for the families of those imprisoned or tortured.

Hameed’s own family, he says, is doing as well as can be expected. His youngest son was born just a few months after his imprisonment. After being in Copenhagen for the last few days when we spoke, he was excited to get back to his “beautiful wife and kids.”

“But the children in Bahrain,” he says; “these days they’re playing with barricades instead of toy cars.”

There have been large, well-attended protests on the street in Bahrain, particularly in the capital Manama, since the start of the Arab Spring last year. But Bahrain hasn’t followed the narrative of Egypt or Tunisia; despite ongoing protests and a brutal crackdown in March of last year, there has been no change from the Al-Khalifa royal family rule.

In June of last year, the government commissioned an independent report on the allegations of human rights abuses in the country, called the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). The BICI report, released in November 2011, was applauded for its forthrightness and frank examination of the abuses in the country, including violent police abuses on the streets and torture within detention facilities. Since the report, some changes have occurred – for example, the trials against the doctors moved to a civilian court instead of a military one; but many have criticized the lack of proper reform.

However, Hameed sees the government actions since the report as “beautified, not as flagrant violations” in comparison with the brutal treatment of 2011.

The government, he says, would like Bahrain to be viewed internationally as the pinnacle of human rights in the Arab world. And they have taken actions, even within recent weeks, to drain the opposition movement.

Indeed, in the days after I spoke with Hameed, 31 Bahrainis – opposition activists who had organised public protests – were stripped of their citizenship for undermining “state security”. Just a few days prior, the government banned public demonstrations, with the Interior Minister saying that “repeated abuse” of the rights to freedom of speech and expression could no longer be accepted.

It’s been the constant attacks and judicial harassment for his public speech that seems to have kept Hameed consistently aggrieved during this process. He stands firm on his right to freedom of expression. Despite the arrest, the torture, the ongoing court cases and the persistent threat of more, he’s defiant, not hostile, but decidedly non-compliant. He will continue to speak against the human rights abuses in Bahrain.

“I don’t mind them personally calling me a criminal. But not a traitor.”

Facing this most recent conviction, it is unknown whether Hameed will lose his license to practice medicine. For the time being though, there is some relief that at least he will not have to go to jail again – he has already served three months and will therefore not have to return. However, the fact that the judge in this case refused to hear any claims of torture from the medics, reflects much of the most recent criticism of Bahrain – that one year after the BICI report, few reforms have taken root.

Tessa is Communications Officer at IRCT.

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Bahrain jailing human rights defenders

Nabeel Rajab, co-founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (at right), and Zainab Al-Khawaja (at left), a Bahrain human rights activist. Photos by Conor McCabe; available via Flickr through Creative Commons License.

The repression against protesters and human rights defenders in the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain has been ongoing during the last 18 months. Beginning with the violent crackdown during the Arab Spring protests, the Bahraini state has been arresting, torturing and detaining human rights defenders, like Abduhadi Al-Khawaja.

Recent reports have emerged from the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) that the judicial harassment of human rights defenders Zainab Al-Khawaja and Nabeel Rajab has been stepped up to detain them on trumped-up charges for their legitimate protests activities against the state. In addition to supporting the work of human rights defenders, we at the IRCT are concerned for their safety; Bahrain has long established a pattern of torturing detainees, and we fear for the safety of Ms Al-Khawaja and Mr Rajab in light of their continued detention.

In our statement, we are echoing the call from BCHR for the Bahrain government to:

1. Immediately release detained human rights defenders Nabeel Rajab and Zainab Al-Khawaja and drop all charges against them, as it is believed that these measures have been taken against them solely due to their legitimate and peaceful work in the defense of human rights, and the exercise of freedom to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression in accordance to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights;

2. Immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience and activists including leading human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja;

3. Immediately put an end to the practice of torture and the ill-treatment of prisoners in Bahrain and bring those responsible to justice;

4. Guarantee in all circumstances that all human rights defenders in Bahrain are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals, and free of all restrictions including judicial harassment.

We also reiterate our call to the international community to put real pressure on the government of Bahrain to stop the ill-treatment of human rights defenders and to to release them immediately as it is believed that they have been targeted solely for their legitimate human rights activities.

Please circulate this statement through your social networks – Facebook, Twitter – to draw attention to the plight of these detained human rights defenders.

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Those who treat torture survivors: bringing together rehabilitation professionals

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a week-long series from Lars Døssing Rosenmeier, who is writing from the Middle East – North Africa (MENA) Regional Seminar in Amman, Jordan. The seminar is part of the European Commission-supported project, Non-State Actors, which you can read more about here.

Dr Fatima Hajji was one of 48 Bahraini doctors who were arrested and tortured during the Arab Spring uprising in spring of 2011. Now wanting to work to help other victims of torture, Dr Hajji is, together with the rest of the newly founded BRAVO organisation, working to establish a rehabilitation centre for torture victims in Bahrain.

Dr Haji, who has only recently had her travel ban lifted, joined more than a dozen other professionals this week at the Middle East – North Africa (MENA) Regional Seminar in Amman, Jordan. The seminar, hosted by IRCT together with project partner Treatment and Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture (TRC), brings together 19 professionals from 9 centres in 7 MENA countries.

Dr Joost den Otter, IRCT’s Clinical Director and Head of Health Team, speaks during the seminar Sunday in Amman, Jordan. The seminar brings together 19 professions from 9 rehabilitation centres in 7 countries.

Most of the MENA centres are strongly involved in the prevention of torture. Thus, in addition to focusing on how rehabilitation centres receive torture survivors and collect and use data on their cases, the seminar will cover the role of the medical professional and the rehabilitation centres as human rights advocates. Moreover, the arrest and torture of at least 48 doctors in Bahrain in the early spring of 2011 has highlighted the need for better protection of medical professionals in many countries.

Wissam Sehweil of the Treatment and Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture, Occupied Palestine, presents the centre’s procedures for receiving survivors of torture.

During Sunday afternoon, four of the participating centres presented their specific intake procedures and the data collected during this procedure. The presentations and in-depth discussions will continue today and throughout the week.

“The timing of the workshop is perfect for BRAVO, because we just started structuring torture rehabilitation,” Dr Haji said. “This workshop helps us in getting it right from the beginning — using the best available tools for assessment and monitoring torture victims’ needs and standardised formats for better communication with international rehabilitation bodies rather than doing it later, which would be more difficult to redo it.”

Lars assists the membership team, focusing on management of the NSA project. The NSA project is supported by the European Commission.

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UK should not welcome torturers to the 2012 Olympics

Protesters march through Manama, Bahrain in March 2011 during the height of the public demonstrations against the current government. Hundreds of protesters have been arrested in a violent crackdown; several dozen have been killed and many have reported being tortured in detention. Photo by Al Jazeera English, available through Creative Commons License.

“I fell on the ground repeatedly. He kept hitting me over and over again and asked the torturer to join him…”

This is the testimony of one of 13 opposition activists in Bahrain that were arrested and tortured following the demonstrations last year in the island nation. According to the testimony, the man who tortured those detained, is none other than Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, son of the king and head of Bahrain’s Olympic committee.

Following demonstrations in the Persian Gulf nation during 2011’s Arab Spring, hundreds of opposition leaders and activists were arrested and charged with numerous crimes, including attempting to overthrow the regime. Allegations of torture in Bahraini detention facilities following the government crackdown were even corroborated by a regime-funded investigation. Abdulla Isa Al-Mahroo, Swedish citizen Mohammed Habib Al-Muqdad and 64-year-old Mohammed Hassan Jawad all reported that Prince Nasser in particular was present and/or fully participated in their torture and beating in detention.

The London 2012 Olympics begin tomorrow and, in common with other recent high profile international sports and entertainment events, has stoked the debate on the interplay between human rights and sports. In Bahrain earlier this year, the Formula 1 rally led to increased opposition protests andinternational calls for a boycott, yet it eventually took place unhindered. And just a few weeks ago, the EUFA Euro 2012 led to heated debate over the attendance of European political figures at the matches in Ukraine, where torture is systematically employed in police detention and where former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko remains detained on charges that many believe are politically motivated.

More than 200 nations will participate in the London games, with tens of thousands of athletes, coaches, political figures and an estimated four million visitors expected to descend on London over the next two weeks.

In the lead-up to the games, UK foreign minister William Hague warned that the British government would not issue visas for individuals or officials from regimes committing human rights abuses. Yet, so far, only one official – General Mowaffak Joumaa, head of Syria’s National Olympic Committee – is believed to have been denied a visa on these grounds.

Yet Prince Nasser will apparently be welcomed into the UK. It seems that Hague’s ‘rule’ has only been applied in the one case of Syria rather than as a consistent and clear policy.

The UK should apply this across the board – those who torture should not be allowed to attend the Olympic Games.
Click here to sign an Avaaz Community petition, calling on British and Olympic officials to ban Prince Nasser from attending the Olympics.

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Tear gas: Is it a violation of human rights?

A recent European Court of Human Rights case finds that the excessive use of tear gas, especially when people are detained or deprived of their liberty, can amount to inhuman and degrading treatment

Police officers fire tear gas on Tahrir Square protesters in November 2011. Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy, available via Flickr through Creative Commons License.

The use of tear gas by law enforcement officials against demonstrators and detainees is widely documented as a method of crowd control.  However, examples of its excessive use are occurring with alarming frequency, for example recently in Bahrain, the West Bank, Turkey and Honduras where the use of tear gas has lead to civilian deaths.

A number of IRCT member centres have been campaigning against the use of tear gas in their countries and in particular its use against peaceful demonstrators and people deprived of liberty which many human rights organisations consider amounts to torture or ill treatment.

The Centre for Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture and their Relatives (CPTRT) in Honduras has also raised its concerns about the use of tear gas by security forces, particularly in places of detention and against those demonstrating, such as the demonstrations that took place against changes to education in March 2011. . The issue was raised by the CPTRT during the recent visit of the UN Sub-Committee for the Prevention of Torture (SPT) to Honduras and the SPT confirmed that it would look into the issue.  The CPTRT also intends to ask the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights for its view on the use of tear gas in prisons and against demonstrators.

The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) has expressed its concerns over the use of such gases in law enforcement. The CPT considers that:

“… [P]epper spray [tear gas] is a potentially dangerous substance and should not be used in confined spaces. Even when used in open spaces the CPT has serious reservations; if exceptionally it needs to be used, there should be clearly defined safeguards in place. For example, persons exposed to pepper spray should be granted immediate access to a medical doctor and be offered an antidote. Pepper spray should never be deployed against a prisoner who has already been brought under control.” (CPT/Inf (2009) 25, paragraph 79)

The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TİHV/HRFT) has vast experience in treating people who have been exposed to tear gas in five of its treatment and rehabilitation centres for torture survivors in Ankara, Istanbul, Izmir, Diyarbakir and Adana. The HRFT decided to conduct further scientific studies on the physical effects of tear gas as its wide use by security forces during demonstrations; it has caused severe injuries and in some cases deaths from exploding bomb canisters and the inhalation of toxic chemicals used in the gas.

The HRFT (Istanbul Centre) has studied 64 cases of people affected by tear gas and evaluated the early side-effects of these chemical agents in these cases based on age, gender, psychological findings as well as other injuries. The research shows that complaints and physical side effects caused as a result of exposure to the tear gas chemicals were highest during the first three days following exposure.

The HRFT considers that “tear gas is a weapon derived from chemical agents” and that “the use of these agents amounts to torture and ill-treatment when used against people whose liberty has been deprived.”

A tear gas canister and rubber bullets used in Egypt to quell protests in June 2011. Photo by Maggie Osama, available via Flickr through Creative Commons License.

The recent decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in the case of Ali Güneş fully supports the HRFT’s position on this issue.

In the recent case of ALİ GÜNEŞ v. TURKEY (Application no. 9829/07), the ECtHR found for the first time that the use of tear gas against people whose liberty has been restricted can amount to a violation of Article 3 ECHR. The Court stressed that there can be no justification for the use of tear gas against an individual who has already been taken under the control of the law enforcement authorities.  Ali Güneş, a high school teacher and member of the Trade Union of Education and Science Workers (Eğitim-Sen), was in one of the thirteen allocated areas where demonstrations were allowed to take place during the 2004 NATO summit in Istanbul. He complained about having been sprayed with tear gas by police officers, even after being arrested. The incident was widely reported in the national press and Mr Güneş was able to produce as evidence a photograph published in the daily newspaper Sabah showing him between two police officers who were holding him by the arms, and one of whom was spraying his nose and mouth with gas at very close range.  He also relied on medical reports which showed that his eyes had been affected by the gas.

In its judgment, the Court referred to previous cases in which it had considered the use of tear gas for the purposes of law enforcement, and where it had recognised that its use can produce effects such as respiratory problems, nausea, vomiting, irritation of the respiratory tract, irritation of the tear ducts and eyes, spasms, chest pain, dermatitis and allergies.  Given the effects the gases cause and the potential health risks they entail, the Court considered that “the unwarranted spraying of [Mr Güneş’s] face in the circumstances described must have subjected him to intense physical and mental suffering and was such as to arouse in him feelings of fear, anguish and inferiority capable of humiliating and debasing him”. By spraying him in such circumstances the police officers subjected Mr Güneş to inhuman and degrading treatment within the meaning of Article 3 of the Convention.

The IRCT welcomes the clear indication from the European Court of Human Rights that tear gas should not under any circumstance be used against persons whose liberty has been restricted and considers that this sends an important signal to countries in the region that the excessive use of tear gas by security forces should not be condoned.

The outcome of the Turkish case should be of vital interest to other regions, where the oppressive use of tear gas is being used with alarming frequency, such as in Bahrain and Honduras.  As the CPT has stated, clearly defined safeguards should be put in place where the use of tear gas is required.  In addition, further protection against the excessive use of tear gas should be supported by more scientific research on the long-term effects of exposure to it, in particular to build on previous studies, such as those carried out by the HRFT and the US-based organisation Physicians for Human Rights.

The decision of the European Court in the case against Turkey, supported by an increased understanding of the long-term health effects of tear gas exposure, will give civil society organisations the increased ammunition needed to campaign against the excessive use of tear gas by law enforcement authorities.

Lea aquí (.DOC) la versión española

Rachel is interning at the IRCT with the Advocacy and Legal Team after completing her European Master’s in Human Rights and Democratisation; she is also a Qualified Solicitor.

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Human rights and torture news roundup

Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, is in Zimbabwe for a week to investigate human rights abuses (Photo by: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferre, available via Flickr through Creative Commons License)

Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – essentially the world’s top human rights chief – is currently visiting Zimbabwe this week. On her first investigatory mission, Ms Pillay will spend one week in the Southern African country to follow-up on decades of allegations of severe and gross human rights violations, including torture and political violence during the 2008 elections. The government, of course, is denying that torture is practiced in Zimbabwe, despite testimonies to the contrary. Zimbabwe will again have elections this year – 2012.

Speaking of the United Nations, the UN’s Committee against Torture is winding down their semi-annual review of countries. This round included, among others, Canada, Cuba, and Albania. The Committee also requested Syria submit a report following a year-long clashes with protester and thousands of accusations of human rights violations and torture. Syria refused to come.

Finally, last week Al Jazeera reported that we – the IRCT – had sponsored a forensics expert to perform a second autopsy on a young man in Bahrain after his parents requested assistance and suspected possible torture. The Bahrain Public Prosecutor agreed to look further into the case, but we have officially called on him, Nayef Yousif, to not ignore the evidence presented in the autopsy conducted by forensic pathologist Dr Sebnem Korur, a leading international expert, winner of the first International Medical Peace Award and an instrumental contributor to the Istanbul Protocol.

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