Posts Tagged human rights
What the bones remember: Doctors from IRCT partner PCATI share their experiences of documenting torture
Detecting signs of torture, often years after they have been caused, can be a tough task. However, due to advancing techniques in medical documentation of torture, physicians are able to establish the injuries inflicted by torture and the best methods of rehabilitation. Three physicians from IRCT partner Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) share their experiences.
For Dr Revital Arbel, torture was not something she had witnessed when her work with PCATI first begun. “Although I have been working in the field for years, particularly with victims of sexual assault, I will always remember a case following the pregnancy of an Eritrean refugee who was raped in Sinai,” she says.
“When she came in to deliver the baby she was accompanied by an interpreter for the first time, and they told me the story. Slowly the things she had been through in Sinai began to sink in. Like other refugee women imprisoned in Saharonim, she had not been able to undergo a termination of pregnancy at an early stage.”
Just as Dr Arbel realized realised the suffering, she received an invitation to participate in the first-ever training program in Israel for physicians and psychologists teaching ways to locate and diagnose torture victims.
The training, an ongoing project organised by PCATI and the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), provides training in the forensic aspects of torture. The knowledge is used to identify victims and to provide evidence in court or in other formal examinations, such as applications to the United Nations to receive refugee status.
Arbel now knows much more about torture in Israel and around the world than she thought possible. “Torture leaves marks,” she says, “and these remain in the body many years after the event. The interrogators may be careful not to leave blue bruises, but today we can also identify what’s under the skin – what the bones remember.”
A personal relationship with torture
For clinical psychologist Dr David Senesh, he understands torture all too well. Captured and imprisoned in an Egyptian jail for 40 days during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Dr Senesh has a personal relationship with torture which enhances his professional, medical understanding of its effects.
“I’m post-traumatic,” he says openly. “The guys who were held prisoner with me can’t figure out what I’m doing; how what we went through brought me to identify with the experience of occupation and treat Palestinians who have undergone torture. But from my perspective it’s a logical continuation.”
Neurologist Dr Bettina Birmanns, who works in the same hospital as the other physicians in Jerusalem, attempts to explain why she found herself repeatedly dealing with the topic of torture. “I’m increasingly convinced that when a state permits torture, it damages the fabric of the state and destroys trust between citizens the authorities. Even if ‘regular’ citizens do not believe that they will be affected, the fact that someone in an official position is allowed to use serious violence and deliberately cause someone else pain and suffering, damaging their inner kernel and soul – and we know that this happens – that destroys society. I cannot accept that.”
The three doctors admit that they paid a heavy emotional price for their participation in the series of workshops. Alongside theoretical sessions discussing methods of torture around the world, trainee participants also diagnosed actual cases, engaged in role-playing exercises, and confronted professional and personal dilemmas.
“There’s a reason why the training program attracted relatively long-serving physicians,” Arbel suggests. “I think this work demands maturity, and I’m glad that I didn’t suggest that any of our interns join it. Maturity is important in order to act properly and cope with the difficult exposure to the people involved and their stories. You also require moderation – you cannot be too extreme in either direction, but need a mature view of life.”
‘You just can’t ignore torture anymore’
But they feel that with trainings such as these – and with the sharing of knowledge and mechanisms to ensure states comply with their anti-torture obligations – torture can be stopped across the globe.
“You reach a point where you just can’t ignore [torture] anymore,” says Dr Birmanns. “You hear the traumatic stories, and you see the victims after they were tortured – what they experienced has an impact on their health, their psychological condition, and their relations with their wives, children, and with society at large.”
“People undergo personality changes. They’ll never be the same as they were before they were tortured. They were all imprisoned afterwards and didn’t receive treatment. So first they are tortured during interrogation, which results with various kinds of problems. And then their imprisonment kind of freezes the situation, and when they are released all kinds of issues and experiences erupt and those around them don’t know how to cope with it. People are happy to see them out of jail, but they are not really the same people who went into jail, partly because of the torture.
“I still believe that a law-abiding state should not deliberately cause pain and suffering and ruin someone’s life. There should be a border that remains uncrossed, beyond any discussion.”
Sweden has a good record when it comes to human rights and torture prevention and rehabilitation. But problems of excessive police force, and alleged mistreatment of refugees, still echo through the country each year.
Providing support in these instances is the The Swedish Red Cross Center for Victims of Torture and War in Malmö. Primarily aimed at refugees and their families in Skåne, southern Sweden, the main mission of this Swedish IRCT member is to give support to refugees who have experienced war, imprisonment, torture and mistreatment while in exile to Sweden or in their home country.
Thanks to a wide range of knowledge and experience from the team of psychologists, doctors, therapists, physicians, social workers, secretaries, administrators and interpreters, the team is able to provide targeted holistic rehabilitation programmes to heal psychological, physical and social wounds.
Activities are also adapted to serve the families of the asylum seekers, undocumented migrants and refugees.
According to Amnesty International, enforced deportations of refugees to their home country – despite a risk of torture existing there – still occur in Sweden, as exemplified by the recent case ruled by the ECHR involving three Russian nationals and their deportation (I vs. Sweden).Thankfully the Swedish move to deport the refugees was blocked as it infringed Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects people from torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
It is only through the help of human rights defenders and networks such as the Red Cross in Malmö that authorities are being held to account, made aware of their obligations under international law, and refugees are being granted the safety they seek.
Even following the ratification of the UN Convention Against Torture in 1998, alarming estimates predict as many as 220,000 people are tortured in Bangladesh every year.
It seems implausible but, according to the Asian Human Rights Commission, it is something quite possible while torture in Bangladesh is not punishable as a crime, due to domestic laws which do not meet the definition of torture according to the Convention Against Torture.
The result is a society with little faith in the judicial system when it comes to reparation for the crimes of torture – a state-of-mind which has bred mass impunity due to widespread beliefs that claims of torture will simply not be taken seriously.
Tackling this impunity is the Bangladesh Centre for Human Rights and Development (BCHRD) which, since 1994, has stayed true to its one objective: to provide immediate assistance and rehabilitation for victims of trauma, particularly children and women.
According to the Asian Human Rights Commission, torture is routinely practiced across the 629 police stations of Bangladesh as investigators see torture as an acceptable and effective means of gathering evidence.
Countering this, the BCHRD works closely with victims of torture in detention to report their stories, to collect their data, and to reintegrate them into society. Approaches to rehabilitation are both administered after the torture and preventatively to stop the cycle of torture in the country.
The main multidisciplinary approach of BCHRD is one known as the integrated rehabilitation approach (IRA) which involves professionals including physicians, physiotherapists, psychologists, counsellors, lawyers and social workers who met frequently to form a united workforce which can target and assist victims of torture in every field necessary.
The benefit of this approach is not only that torture survivors are assisted, but it promotes cross-training and sharing of information among Bangladesh’s most important groups in the protection of human rights.
Since founding in 1985, the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) has rehabilitated over 24,000 torture survivors, provided healing programmes for people affected by torture and violent conflict, implemented community building projects in the aftermath of some of the world’s deadliest wars, and pioneered research into torture rehabilitation and prevention.
That’s a pretty impressive resume for a centre which essentially began as a conversation between a human rights campaigner and his father, the then Governor of Minnesota.
Following a visit to Denmark and the Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims – now the Danish IRCT member, DIGNITY – Governor Perpich returned to Minnesota to establish CVT as an independent non-governmental organisation aimed at healing torture survivors.
But CVT did not just remain influential in the US and, by the early 1990s, their operations had expanded with work in Bosnia and Croatia. In 1995, CVT began working with medical professionals in Turkey to train them in the documentation of torture survivors.
Today CVT is truly a large international movement, offering direct care for torture victims and refugees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, refugees of the Somali war in the Dadaab camps in northern Kenya, urban refugees in Nairobi, Kenya, Iraqi and Syrian refugees in Jordan and Eritrean refugees in northern Ethiopia.
But as well as expanding and developing their projects across the globe, CVT is working on shaping public opinions at home. Through a newly established blog, the team at CVT aims at adding personality to the movement, to give people an understanding of the work of CVT staff and the experiences they encounter through their anti-torture work.
It is yet another initiative of CVT’s ever-expanding tapestry to prevent torture and improve the lives of torture survivors.
“Torture has profound long-term effects. Physical reminders include headaches, chronic pain, respiratory problems and a host of other symptoms. The psychological damage is often worse,” says Brad Robideau from CVT.
“But healing is possible. We help survivors rebuild their lives so torture is in their past and not something they re-live every day.”
Over the past week, we donated the World Without Torture Twitter account to two Syrian refugees who have been telling their story of escaping the conflict in Syria, as part of a campaign to raise awareness of Syrian refugees in Europe. We look at what we have learnt about their experience.
As the Syrian conflict enters its fourth year, there is no avoiding that the conflict has created one of the biggest humanitarian crises in history. According to recent statistics from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNCHR), nine-million Syrians have been displaced by the conflict, over two-million of which have fled to neighbouring countries.
But to date, only 80,000 refugees have fled to Europe – a number which the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) believes is low due to tough restrictions on refugees entering the continent.
ECRE’s campaign – “Europe Act Now” – utilises social media to promote the stories of Syrian refugees who are in need of a safe passage to Europe, in an attempt to pressure European decision-makers to safeguard the rights of refugees.
Telling their story of the conflict through the World Without Torture Twitter were husband and wife Osama, 32, and Zaina, 26. From Aleppo, Osama and Zaina never anticipated the conflict would displace them and their two children. To escape, they aimed for Sweden, but instead found asylum in Greece.
Yet now, the couple are facing hardship still after being beaten and robbed in Greece.
Telling their story on Twitter, Osama and Zaina miss Syria but know they cannot return there now.
“Our daughter couldn’t sleep. She used to cover her ears to block out the sound of gunshots. Just leaving the house to buy bread was dangerous. We had to pass checkpoints to get to the bakery,” they said on Twitter.
“Getting my family from Turkey to safety in Scandinavia would cost €40,000. We didn’t have that money. European countries could take Syrian refugees who are in Turkey, Jordan, Iraq or in the camps.”
The reality of refugees is further complicated when we consider that health professionals and researchers commonly estimate that between 4-35% of refugees worldwide have been subjected to torture. These figures demonstrate that this is not a marginal problem of a marginal community, but a substantial problem that must be urgently addressed.
Join us in pushing for better policy and practice related to the identification and protection of refugee torture survivors and to safeguard the rights of refugees.
So far nearly 300,000 people on Twitter have been reached by the campaign, which continues until World Refugees Day on 20 June.
To read the full selection of tweets on our Twitter, please click this link.
And to find out more about the campaign, click here.
“He’s missing a piece of his chest and I can see his heart beating,” says one unidentified US Army Officer recalling a heavy firefight in Afghanistan. But for the victim, a 15-year-old Omar Khadr, the injuries were only the start of his pain.
Held in Guantanamo Bay for 10 years, and now detained in a Canadian jail, Canadian citizen Omar Khadr is just one tragic example of human rights abuses under the watch of a country often deemed to champion human rights.
Following the bombardment on his compound in 2002, Omar was held prisoner and tortured in Bagram, Afghanistan, by the US military, suspected of killing Sergeant Christopher Speer in the battle. It is a charge human rights groups have contested ever since, particularly amidst reports the US military doctored their accounts of the battle to mask Speer’s death from friendly fire as murder by an Afghani insurgent.
And despite being a child soldier at the time of the alleged killing – by definition of the UN Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict – Omar was controversially charged as an adult for war crimes in 2012.
Fighting for his freedom ever since is Dennis Edney QC, who is assisting Omar in overturning his sentence from his prison cell in Canada.
To highlight the case, and to illuminate the human rights abuses, the London Guantanamo Campaign has arranged a series of talks with Mr Edney from 12 March.
Held at various locations across London, and one talk in York, Mr Edney’s tour culminates with an appearance at Amnesty International on 18 March.
The talks, which are free admission, will no doubt provide a unique insight not only into the human rights abuses and torture in the case of Omar, but also the ill-treatment that exists worldwide, and the failings of governments often considered to uphold a decent standard of human rights.
For a full calendar of talks and for ticket information, please click this link.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For further information from World Without Torture, do not forget to ‘like’ us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Click here to visit our Facebook page, and here to visit our Twitter feed.
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.
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.”
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.
“This government will not give an inch when it comes to protecting our borders,” says Australian Immigration minister Scott Morrison in a rather definitive sound-bite.
But the lack of negotiation is not a hard-line response to a threat. The position of the government is not to tackle an impending disaster. Instead the anti-asylum stance – which particularly targets refugees fleeing Indonesia by perilous, horrifying makeshift boat trips across the Pacific – is one promoted to ensure political success, even at the possible expense of thousands of lives of asylum seekers who are simply holding regard for their own life.
In October 2013, this blog covered the story of Operation Sovereign Borders – a seemingly militaristic operation, led by decorated Major General Angus Campbell, under the coalition government of Australia, which aims to halt the arrival of asylum seekers by sea.
The rhetoric is clear, the message direct: stopping the boats is the number one priority.
It’s an aim which some commentators have already hailed as a victory, allowing Australia to move past its days of “lost sovereignty and lawless migration”.
Currently all unauthorized migrants – or ‘illegals’ as the State shorthand seems to suggest – are detained. The detention exists as an intermediary phase whereby assessments can be carried out to determine the legality of a person’s stay. The alternative method to deal with arriving immigrants is to send them back to their homeland.
The detention, while in theory short-term, often transforms into long-term detention, causing great psychological harm to asylum seekers, who remain estranged from humanity with many detention centres constructed away from the mainland. Reports of depression and anxiety are unsurprising and, unfortunately, these symptoms are similar to those experienced under torture – the frightening reality which may have triggered the risky boat journey to Australia in the first place.
IRCT member Association for Services to Torture and Trauma Survivors (ASeTTS) in Perth, Western Australia, provides counselling and mental health services for asylum seekers in the region who are currently in detention. But with the government seemingly succeeding in their clampdown on the “boat people”, ASeTTS may no longer have access to asylum seekers via state detention centres, purely because asylum seekers will not arrive at all. In fact state detention centres could closedown altogether, meaning there will be no support for asylum seekers, many of whom need vital help to move on from experiences of torture in their past.
And perhaps this is exactly what some political figures want – a complete end to the boats, an end to asylum seeking, and an end to the apparent ‘threat’. But what this narrow, vote-pursuing policy also ends is fair human rights treatment. So while the policy is claimed to be a success, it all comes at the cost of the Australian human rights record.
As signatories of various international human rights conventions upholding rights for asylum seekers – particularly the 1951 Refugee Convention – Australia’s government should give fair and proper consideration, screening and treatment to anyone seeking asylum, to identify potential trauma and suffering which forced them to take the decision to leave their country. But even more basic than that, to assure basic protection of human rights, correct and fair treatment of asylum seekers is a must.