Posts Tagged human rights
It is time to put a face to torture victims and reclaim their need for and right to rehabilitation – a right guaranteed under the UN Convention against Torture. As part of this year’s 26 June campaign, we are sharing the stories of survivors and care providers to show how providing rehabilitation services to torture survivors is a right and responsibility for all.
For many torture victims, seeing the perpetrator brought to justice and receiving compensation and reparations for the trauma suffered is an essential step in their rehabilitation. Yet, seeking justice can often be a traumatic experience for a survivor, or been seen as a waste of time. The psychosocial support provided by IRCT members to those seeking justice and reparation plays a hugely important role in changing this perception.
The Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU), a governance, health and human rights non-profit organisation based in Nairobi, Kenya is one such centre. IMLU supports torture survivors during sometimes lengthy legal cases by offering them group or individual therapy.
In 2014, IMLU provided psychosocial support to a group of nine ex-servicemen from the Kenyan Air Force, who were detained, imprisoned and tortured after a failed coup attempt in Kenya in 1982. Thanks to IMLU, the group overcame the strong feelings of shame and stigma they had experienced, and eventually felt so empowered that they decided to share their stories with the world.
When IMLU first met the group members, they were going through legal proceedings in the form of a civil case, suing the government over wrongful dismissal and ill-treatment. Most of the group members had never spoken about the torture they experienced after the coup attempt and were hesitant to engage in therapy.
IMLU counsellors provided the group with psychosocial support and education about the impact of torture, which helped them normalise their feelings and experiences. Because of this, the group was able to start building trust with each other and the counsellor, which meant they could start to process the trauma.
As a final component of the process, IMLU helped the men let go of any part of their story or feelings that they no longer wished to hold on to. The men chose to write letters to their perpetrators, which they then burned in a letting go ceremony.
IMLU’s group therapy empowered the men to move on and rebuild their lives. They have now formed a society, which they hope to use to help other torture survivors and assist them in rebuilding their lives.
IMLU continued to provide the men with peer counselling training in order to further empower the group to reach out to other torture survivors.
The Russian government has once again been criticised after introducing a new law that allows any foreign or international NGO to be declared “undesirable” and to be shut down. The law is the latest attempt to limit the impact of human rights organisations that are deemed anti-government. Adding to this, local and international NGOs continue to be targets of intimidation and discrimination.
Three staff from the Danish rehabilitation centre, Danish Institute Against Torture (DIGNITY) were fined and expelled from Russia while on a recent mission to provide technical assistance on trauma rehabilitation and prevention of torture. Their work with a Russian human rights organisation, the Committee Against Torture (NGO CAT) had been publicly announced, and despite having secured visas they were found to be in violation of Russian visa regulations.
DIGNITY and NGO CAT are both members of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) and their aim is to support and treat survivors of torture. A mission that many governments value. Yet, in Russia, NGO CAT is one of many civil society organisations facing increasing hostility.
The Russian government recently introduced a new law that makes it possible to ban foreign NGOs and prosecute their employees, who risk up to six years in prison or being barred from the country. The law is the latest step in a series of restrictions on civil society, NGOs and human rights defenders.
In 2012, the Russian parliament adopted a new law that required NGOs to register as “foreign agents” if they engaged in “political activity” and received foreign funding. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), in Russia “foreign agent” can be interpreted only as “spy” or “traitor,” and there is little doubt that the law aims to demonise and marginalise independent advocacy groups.
NGO CAT are among the organisations labelled a foreign agent, and the centre fears that it could be forced to close down unless a court removes the tag. But as the Russian president Vladimir Putin seems set on imposing more restrictions on independent organisations and civil society, a removal of the tag is highly unlikely.
For NGO CAT, anti-NGO laws are not the only means of intimidation that the organisation is worried about. In December last year, the office of NGO CAT initiative, Joint Mobile Group (JMG), based in the Chechen capital Grozny was set on fire in what appears to be an act of intimidation by local authorities. The following day the police visited the provisional premises of NGO CAT and, for no apparent reason, seized the centre’s mobile phones, computers and CCTV cameras and held two staff members for several hours. Prior to the fire, NGO CAT staff had been receiving threatening phone calls and text messages.
Sadly, the story of NGO CAT is far from unique. Human rights groups and defenders are continuously subjected to acts of intimidation and threats. Offices have been raided, activists have been arrested and organisations fined. In some cases, prominent human rights defenders have even been killed, with no one charged with their murders.
Back in Denmark, the three DIGNITY employees remain puzzled as to why they were expelled, but the whole process leading up to their expulsion has revealed a flawed justice system allowing for false witness statements and documents.
Most of the international community have expressed their concern about the treatment of human rights defenders in Russia, and rightly so. For NGO CAT, the stakes are high. As the anti-NGO laws increase the pressure on the organisation, its future is uncertain. The only thing that seems certain at this point is Russia’s determination to repress NGOs.
On 3 June, a group of people broke into NGO CAT’s regional office and apartment in Grozny. According to NGO CAT’s regional coordinator Oleg Khabibrakhmanov, the group arrived late in the morning as part of a protest rally. Khabibrakhmanov said his colleagues in Grozny called police immediately but none arrived.
The men were seen to be smashing furniture, computers and destroying paper files and folders. Some of them brought an angle grinder and eventually broke through to the adjacent apartment where temporary staff of NGO CAT were working.
Guest blogger Aisha Maniar of the London Guantánamo Campaign writes about a controversial counter-terrorism bill in India that, if passed, could increase the risk of torture and other ill-treatment of prisoners.
On 31 March, the government of the state of Gujarat, in Western India, passed a controversial counter-terrorism bill for the fourth time in 12 years.
First passed in 2003 under the auspices of the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, when he was Chief Minister of the state, the Gujarat government now hopes that Modi’s current status will help the bill acquire the presidential assent required for it to become law – something that has been denied three times already.
One of the most controversial provisions of this latest amendment of the bill, now called the Gujarat Control of Terrorism and Organised Crime Bill (previously, only organised crime was mentioned in the title), is clause 16, which would allow confessions made to a police officer at or above the rank of superintendent admissible evidence in court.
Clause 16 does not contain any safeguards against fears that it may be used to obtain confessions coerced through torture or other inhumane treatment. The last time the bill was approved and sent for presidential assent in 2009, the president’s office asked for this clause to be removed.
According to Amnesty International India, the lack of adequate safeguards in clause 16 “will almost certainly increase the risk of torture and other ill-treatment of detainees.”
In addition to clause 16, the Gujarat bill includes a very broad definition of torture and affords immunity against prosecution of police or government officials acting in “good faith”. It is modelled on a similar law from the neighbouring state of Maharashtra on organised crime, which contains the same provision. However, this bill differs in its widening of the scope to include counter-terrorism, harking back to controversial old counter-terrorism laws. According to journalist Manoj Mitta, this clause “threatens to serve as a legal cover for torture”.
India is still to ratify the UN Convention against Torture (CAT) and the use of torture in Indian prisons is rife, particularly where prisoners are accused of or convicted of terrorism-related offences. A 2011 Human Rights Watch report on the treatment of terrorism suspects in India states that “much of the worst abuse” was committed by the Gujarat police. In the first decade of this century, more than 100 people died in custody in Gujarat, usually as a result of torture.
Just weeks after the Gujarat government passed the bill in mid-April, the Gujarat police sought to prevent the release of a book detailing the torture suffered by a man who had been arrested under the earlier repealed counter-terrorism law. Tortured into confessing, along with five others, the man was convicted and sentenced to death in 2006; he was acquitted of all charges in 2014 by the Indian Supreme Court and released from prison after 11 years.
An Amnesty International survey from 2014 found that 74% of respondents in India – the highest rate along with China – believe “torture can sometimes be justiﬁed to gain information that may protect the public.” Both widespread and widely accepted in India, such a law would only further sanction its use and could lead to an increase of the practice. Amnesty International India has called for similar existing laws in other states to be repealed immediately.
Speaking of the Gujarat bill, Shemeer Babu, Programmes Director at Amnesty International India, said, “Instead of weakening criminal procedure safeguards, authorities should be giving state police the training, resources and autonomy they need to prevent and solve crimes.”
And besides prevention, the government should do more to treat those who have fallen victims to torture in the country, which has one of the highest incidences of torture in the world. Torture is a complex problem that requires comprehensive solutions.
On 23 April, the state governor of Gujarat sent the bill to the Indian President Pranab Mukherjee for his assent. The opposition party in the state has said it will ask the President not to approve it. A decision is likely in May.
The use of torture is a contentious topic that has caused a myriad of heated arguments between those who believe the practice can be justified and those who say that it is a serious human rights violation that can never be tolerated. As a result, many myths and misconceptions have sprung up about torture, poisoning the debate.
In this blog we debunk 7 of the most common myths about torture.
Torture works and there are no better alternatives
In the wake of last year’s release of the CIA torture report, there has been an ongoing and toxic debate over the use of torture. Does it work? Is it really that bad? The defenders of torture argue that had it not been for the CIA’s torture program, cities like London would have been hit by terrorist attacks. They also claim that at times, torture is a necessary evil to keep us all safe.
These are just some of many misconceptions about torture. Not only do we now know that what took place at Guantanamo Bay actually led to false confessions and stories, history also tells us that torture is not an effective means of acquiring intelligence.
Torture always leaves visible scars and is easy to document
That is not always the case. Unlike the infamous torture methods used in the Middle Ages, states today are trying very hard to hide their crimes. Thus, many torture methods leave little or no physical marks. Some examples are mock executions, temperature manipulation, sensory torture (noise and light), waterboarding (mock drowning), threats of harm to friends or family, and sleep deprivation. Increasingly sophisticated methods are harder to document, and the effects they produce more likely to be invisible, thus contributing to impunity.
Torture is anything awful done to a person
While the CIA ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ are torture, getting up early in the morning for work and doing the dishes is not. The UN Convention against Torture includes a widely accepted definition of torture. Torture always involves:
- severe pain or suffering, physical or mental
- extraction of information or a confession, punishment, intimidation or coercion, or discrimination of any kind
- a public official or person in an official capacity (the perpetrator)
Torture is a thing of the past
Most people connect torture to the Middle Ages and some have visited medieval torture museums to learn about this ancient practice. Back then, torture was considered a legitimate way to extract confessions, punish offenders, and perform executions. It turns out, torture is not history. The IRCT network of torture rehabilitation clinics treated more than 100,000 victims of torture according to its last census. Amnesty recently reported that more than 140 countries around the world still use torture. And in many countries, police officers are ignorant about the fact that torture constitutes a crime under international law and humane alternatives to torture exist.
Torture is only used in war, in a few countries
There are constantly new cases of torture happening away from armed conflicts and war. As an example, police brutality or torture in detention are both serious problems in a great majority of countries. In fact, Amnesty International has in the past five years reported torture and abuse in more than 140 countries.
Torture victims are either criminals or terrorists
Anyone can be a victim of torture – children as well as adults, young as well as old, religious as well as atheists, intellectuals and the uneducated alike.
Nobody is immune, although members of a particular political, religious, ethnic group or minority are at higher risk of being targets of government-endorsed violence. Frequent victims include politicians, union leaders, journalists, health professionals, human rights defenders, people in detention or prison, members of ethnic minorities, and student leaders.
Another large group of victims are poor people. Poverty makes people vulnerable to abuses and leaves them without the ways and means of defending their rights.
Not all forms of torture are bad
Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person to obtain information, punish, intimidate or coerce is never justified. There is no such thing as one method being less harmful than the other.
All forms of torture are horrific violations of human rights – including beating, electric shocks, stretching, submersion, suffocation, burns, rape and sexual assault, isolation, threats, humiliation, mock executions, mock amputations, and witnessing the torture of others.
The consequences of torture — any torture — reach far beyond immediate pain and can leave long-term scars on the victims.
Forced virginity testing is a serious human rights violation and at its worst it constitutes rape and torture. This is how a group of experts have described the highly controversial practice that is used to determine a woman’s virginity.
In the past few months, Indonesia has made headlines around the world for all the wrong reasons. Late last year, the country unwittingly found itself in the spotlight when it emerged that the national government subjected female applicants for Indonesia’s National Police to “discriminatory and degrading virginity tests.”
When a few months later a local Indonesian MP proposed that all girls should be subjected to virginity tests in order to graduate from school, it sparked an outcry. Shortly after, the deputy head of the district announced that the proposal had been scrapped.
Sadly, Indonesia is far from the only place where forced virginity testing is still happening despite the practice being illegal in many states.
Recent cases in Egypt and Afghanistan reaffirm that this gruesome practice is flourishing in many countries around the world.
For those unfamiliar with the practice it may seem like a simple intervention, but according to the Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG) – a group of more than 30 of the world’s leading forensic experts – forcibly conducted virginity testing is likely to cause severe and lasting psychological symptoms and disabilities that remain over time.
“The practice can cause women to feel intense humiliation, self-disgust, and worthlessness, especially since examinations are likely to involve other forms of abuse such as unconsented touching or groping, as well as threats, coercion or force,” the group said in a recent statement.
The IFEG also pointed that the practice has zero scientific value and at is worst it constitutes torture and rape.
“Health professionals have no medical foundation for conducting virginity examinations,” it said.
The IFEG is not the only group of experts condemning forced virginity testing. In December last year, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) joined the growing opposition against the tests, calling on states to end the ‘degrading, discriminatory, and unscientific “virginity testing” of women and girls.’
So why do states continue to carry out these tests?
Most experts agree that the larger issue at stake here is the perception of and the treatment of women in these countries. In some instances forced virginity testing has the effect or purpose of controlling women and denying them their rights.
“Prejudice and negative stereotypes against women and girls are passed off as medical science by many doctors who wrongly believe they can determine a woman’s virginity,” explained women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch, Liesl Gerntholtz.
While there is a growing focus on what we know as sexual violence against women, forced virginity testing is still just one issue on a long list of overlooked violations against women and girls.
There is hope, however, that the highly publicised cases in Indonesia and Egypt will change this.
Meanwhile, Secretary-General of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), Victor Madrigal-Borloz has reminded doctors of their responsibility to respect human rights.
“As a movement made of health professionals, we are in a key position to condemn forced virginity testing, often carried out by health professionals in a clear violation of professional ethics and international human rights.”
At IRCT member centre, Survivors of Torture International (SURVIVORS) it is the little things that matter. Something as small as a bus ticket can mean the difference between treatment and no treatment for torture victims.
Staff at SURVIVORS treat many refugees and asylum seekers who have limited or no financial resources and support network. Getting to the centre is a big challenge for those who do not live nearby, especially because public transportation in Southern California is restrictive and challenging to navigate, even for those who speak the language and are familiar with the city.
Then there are the exorbitant costs of public transportation. One thing is to work out how to get there, another thing is to pay for the tickets.
Until now, SURVIVORS has been able to offer bus tickets or other help with transportation to any client in need, but a reduction in funding has forced the centre to make some tough decisions.
Sadly, SURVIVORS’ story is far from unique. Across the world, rehabilitation centres have seen a decrease in funding from donors focusing on immediate results over holistic rehabilitation.
Despite these challenges, the San Diego centre will continue to treat the same number of clients as before, but now the centre staff can no longer offer some of its most desperate clients help with transportation.
“While our financial situation won’t affect the number of clients that we’re treating, it will however impact many of our clients who are asylum seekers with little or no financial support. These clients rely on public transport to get to the actual center, but with less funds, SURVIVORS won’t be able to help pay for their bus tickets, as we used to,” says Executive Director of SURVIVORS, Kathi Anderson.
Kathi Anderson explains how one of the centre’s clients is a woman who is 6 month pregnant. Alone in a new country and without any support network, this small token has made a huge difference to her. Kathi Anderson is worried that if they do not continue to help her pay her bus tickets, she is not able to turn up for her treatment.
Since it opened in 1997, SURVIVORS has helped thousands of survivors of torture to recover from their traumas by offering them a range of services, including medical, dental, psychiatric, psychological, and social care.
The staff has seen first-hand how the number of refugees and asylum seekers in need of treatment is increasing. The many armed conflicts and humanitarian crises worldwide means that for the first time since the Second World War, the number of refugees and asylum seekers on a global basis has exceeded 50 million. This development has put enormous pressure on rehabilitation centres like SURVIVORS.
Exacerbating the situation for SURVIVORS is the news that a nearby government-run detention centre for immigrants is moving to a new facility, doubling its size. Being the only rehabilitation centre in the area, the centre fears that it will be forced to turn away immigrants with nowhere else to go.
When asked if there are any alternatives nearby for those torture victims they will not be able to help, Kathi Anderson replies:
“The nearest rehabilitation centre is in Los Angeles which is a 3 hour and 76$ train ride each way. I can’t imagine that there are too many refugees who can afford this or have the mental strength to get on that train.”
To find out more about SURVIVORS, visit their website www.notorture.org.
Today is of great importance to women around the world. Since 1975, 8 March has been the official International Women’s Day, giving us a chance to remember women’s past and current struggles and celebrate their achievements.
Women’s rights are at the core of human rights. Whether it is to do with women’s lack of education or political participation, wage inequality or gender based violence, these are all human rights issues that are high on the agenda.
Sadly, another pressing issue is torture of and sexual violence against women and girls.
Torture is a global endemic that destroys the lives of millions of people. Every day and in all corners of the world, women are being subjected to torture and other forms of abuse, often for no other reason than being a woman.
Some of the most prominent people in the fight against torture are women. To celebrate International Women’s Day, we look at four inspirational women who have seen or experienced the horrors of torture as an advocate, a caregiver and a victim.
The advocate: Inge Genefke
Inge Genefke is a prize-winning campaigner and medical doctor who has devoted her career specifically to the treatment and rehabilitation of victims of torture. As one of the pioneers of the anti-torture movement, she began her career in this field in 1973 when Amnesty International started a campaign to diagnose and heal torture victims in Chile.
Inge Genefke started as co-founder of the Danish Medical Group of Amnesty International in 1974. At that time, no knowledge existed about the destructive influence of torture on the victim’s physical and psychological health. The work of Genefke’s group resulted in the establishment of more medical groups the world over.
In 1982, Genefke established the Rehabilitation and Research Centre for Torture Victims (RCT) in Denmark and three years later the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims was founded as the global umbrella organisation for torture rehabilitation centres.
Now 77 years old, Inge Genefke still campaigns and makes the news when perpetrators make it to Denmark on official visits.
The caregiver: Yadira Narvaez
During her medicine studies in Ecuador in the late 1980s, Yadira Narvaez worked at the medical department of a male prison. The experience became one of the most transformative events in her life. Seeing first-hand the lack of respect for human rights in prisons made Dr Narvaez realise that she needed to do something to try to protect prisoners and to assist torture survivors.
Determined to give torture victims in prison access to rehabilitation services, she went on to also work in the treatment of female detainees at another penal institution.
In 1997, Dr Narvaez helped found the Foundation for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence (PRIVA). PRIVA focuses on the prevention and eradication of torture in Ecuador and the care of torture victims and their families.
Today, Dr Narvaez continues to be a strong voice in the anti-torture movement in Ecuador, despite the personal risks involved.
“The security situation for forensic doctors in Ecuador is concerning, especially for those who document cases of torture, but people have to raise their voices to speak about what is happening in this country”, said Dr Narvaez. “As an independent professional, I am also a voice for the torture victims and, hopefully, can contribute to ending impunity for those who torture”.
The powerful victim: Dilma Rousseff
Late last year, an emotional Brazilian president presented a 2000-page report by the National Truth Commission. The report, which was the result of almost three years of investigation into human rights abuses during Brazil’s 1964-1985 military rule, contains harrowing details of torture carried out by the dictatorship.
Detailing serious human rights violations such as beatings, electric shocks and sexual violations, the report brought back Dilma Rousseff’s memories of being tortured.
As a student in the 1960s and 70s, she was part of a Marxist guerrilla group, opposing the government. In 1970, aged 22, she was arrested and held in prison for almost 3 years. There, she was subjected to torture, including electric shocks to her breasts, feet and ears.
Of the thousands of people believed to have been tortured during the dictatorship, Dilma Rousseff is one of the most prominent torture victims. After her release, she successfully rebuilt her life. She gave birth to her daughter in 1976, studied economics, entered politics in the 1980s, and was sworn in as Brazil’s first female president in 2010.
When she unveiled the Truth Commission report, she broke down in tears saying ‘new generations deserve truths.’
“The work of this commission increases the possibility for Brazil to have a fully democratic future, free of authoritarian threats.”
The unknown victim: Illuminée Munyabugingo
Over the course of 100 days, more than 800,000 people were killed in Rwanda for being part of a different ethnic community. Behind the numbers, people lost loved ones, their homes, and their lives to the hands of the military, the police, neighbours, and even friends.
More than 20 years after the Rwandan Genocide, the effects are still being felt across the country. Those who perhaps suffered the most are women, many of whom are unknown victims of sexual violence and torture.
Illuminée Munyabugingo was 34 years old when the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis happened in Rwanda. At the time, she was part of a family with 16 children. The genocide took her husband, two of her children and 13 of her siblings.
“During the genocide I lost my relatives as others lost theirs, I became a widow like other women. But what destroyed my heart in particular was having been raped in front of my children. It deprived me of my dignity and my value. Every time I think about the rape I can still smell the odour of the sweat of my rapists.”
Today, Illuminée shares her story in the hope of helping countless other women who like her suffered atrocities for being a woman.
“I advise other women who experienced rape to build good relationships with people who live around them and to be courageous in whatever they do. I encourage them to talk about their problems to people close to them, because that will help them to recover. These women have to respect themselves instead of being taken over by their problems. They have to fight against being colonised by the consequences of their bad experiences. For those who are less experienced, I advise them to approach those who are more qualified and learn from them.”
There are so many incredible and strong women in the human rights movement. Who would you like to celebrate, honour or remember?
The release of Australian journalist Peter Greste, and a new report by Human Rights Watch has once again turned the world’s attention to Egypt’s poor human rights record. This time focus is on the country’s prisons and its inhumane treatment of political prisoners.
After 400 days in prison charged with supporting a “terrorist organisation”, a farcical trial and an international outcry, Peter Greste from Al-Jazeera was finally released from Egypt’s Tora prison this month. Despite the relief of being free again, Greste called for the release of his two colleagues, his producer Mohamed Fahmy, and cameraman Bahar Mohamed, both of whom remain behind bars.
Like Peter Greste, the two were given heavy sentences for disseminating “false news” and purportedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which won Egypt’s first democratic elections.
Sadly, their story is not at all unique. News outlets report of tens of thousands of political prisoners detained in Egyptian prisons. As most of these prisoners cannot claim dual citizenship, their future is one of much uncertainty and despair.
Torture and Abuse
The staggering number of political prisoners is just one side of Egypt’s problem. Despite the constitution banning torture and abuse of detainees, the practice is widespread in Egyptian prisons.
As the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) points out, history shows that the Egyptian military and police disregard the rule of law and have systematically used extreme violence and torture in their repressive tactics. IRCT’s human rights partners in the region have for years documented the systematic torture of those detained by military and police forces.
According to Amnesty International, torture is routinely practiced in police stations and unofficial places of detention, with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters particularly targeted.
Amnesty International also reports that there has been a surge in arbitrary arrests, detentions and harrowing incidents of torture and deaths in police custody in the past couple of years.
Last year, British newspaper The Guardian revealed that since July 2013 at least 400 people had been tortured and held outside of judicial oversight in a secret military prison.
A recent report by Human Rights Watch criticising the Egyptian authorities, detailed scores of detainees suffering and even dying while in government custody, but human rights defenders all agree that the number of casualties is likely to be much higher than that.
Preventing torture in prisons and other places of detention is not an easy task with so few perpetrators brought to justice. Of all torture complaints in Egypt, only a very few reach the courts due to institutional barriers to justice.
The independent Egyptian human rights law firm United Group released a report in which it described how it had interviewed 465 alleged victims of police torture and that it had filed 163 complaints, of which only seven reached the courts.
Sadly, this hopeless and grim situation is unlikely to change any time soon.
Amid continuous reporting on Peter Greste’s release, an Egyptian court sentenced 183 people to death, 34 of whom were not even present for the trial. If this verdict is anything to go by, Egypt is not reforming its prison and justice system. Instead, it appears determined to continue down this dangerous path, ignoring international human rights law.
Peter Greste’s story offers some relief in an otherwise desperate time. After 400 days in captivity, he is back in Australia. Still behind bars, however, are the tens of thousands of political prisoners. They know about the unjust trials and what police brutality feels like. Now they face the prospect of remaining in prisons for years to come – in a country that took away their freedom and human rights.
Despite ongoing international efforts to eliminate the practice of torture, it is not a question of whether torture still takes place, but rather where in the world it is still practised and how prevalent it is. Currently, more than 40 states across the globe have failed to ratify the UN Convention against Torture (UNCAT) and in many of these countries, human rights defenders are raising the alarm, alerting to the constant flow of cases involving torture and ill treatment.
If anything, the recent report on CIA’s use of torture shows that this crime is more prevalent than most of us probably thought. The US is a signatory to the Convention against Torture, yet its own intelligence agency relied on the practice of torture as an integral part of its interrogation technique.
If a country that has committed to respect the UN Convention still allows for the practice of torture, then what is the status in the 40 something countries that are still to adopt it?
We have looked at three of these countries. Despite facing very different problems, they all have one thing in common: none of them has managed to tackle the problem of torture.
As a country with a population of more than a billion, it is not hard to see what an overpowering task it is to eliminate torture. Set on making the country an industrial superpower and creating more jobs, overcoming the enormity of its human rights problems is not an immediate priority – economic reform is.
Nonetheless, it is very worrying that a large number of torture cases in India happen at the hand of the police, and often while the victim is in custody. From 2001 to 2010, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) recorded 14,231 deaths in police and judicial custody in India. The vast majority of these deaths can be ascribed to torture.
Only in recent weeks, newspapers have reported on the city of Chennai, where three police officers are currently being investigated for sexual torture of a 19-year old at the local police station. There is also the police commissioner in Delhi who has had to deny claims that the police has used torture to extract confessions. And in Calcutta, the West Bengal Government faces heat over alleged police torture of a woman.
According to various rights organisations, these stories are just the tip of the iceberg in a country that still has a long way to go despite its commitments to tackle the most prevalent human rights abuses. While the country has taken positive steps by strengthening laws protecting women and children, its reluctance to hold state officials to account for torture and other abuses continues to foster a culture of corruption and impunity.
To many, Fiji is the perfect holiday destination. With its white sandy beaches and exotic palm trees, this tropical archipelago in the South Pacific could easily be mistaken as paradise on earth. But even paradise has a dark side and in the case of Fiji this dark side involves a poor human rights record.
In recent years, there have been numerous allegations of the use of torture by state officials.
In March 2013, a video was posted on the internet showing two prisoners being badly beaten and humiliated by state security officials. Failure by the Fijian authorities to investigate the case has raised red flags about a culture of impunity for police and security forces.
Following last year’s elections, Fiji had its second review by the UN Human Rights Council which, among other things, urged the state to amend repressive decrees that put severe restrictions on freedom of expression, promote women’s rights and ratify the UNCAT.
Despite these recommendations and similar calls from various human rights organisations, the government is still to take action.
In the meantime, cases of police violence and torture involving state officials continue to emerge.
Central African Republic
For more than two years, a violent, sectarian civil war has left Central African Republic (CAR) paralysed, prompting rights organisations to warn of a human rights crisis spiralling out of control.
In January 2015, UN’s International Commission of Inquiry on the Central African Republic, reported that crimes against humanity have been widely committed by all parties to the ongoing conflict. The Commission strongly recommended that accountability mechanisms be put in place to tackle the ‘cycle of impunity’ in the CAR.
However, recognising that the CAR Government simply does not have the resources nor the political incentive to bring the perpetrators to justice, the Commission has urged the international community to step up and fund a tribunal to prosecute those who have committed crimes against humanity.
These recommendations illustrate how vital it is for CAR to ratify the UNCAT. Until this happens, violence and torture continue to be rampant in the war-torn country.
What difference can the UN Convention against Torture make?
In the first instance, the UNCAT is one of the most important international human rights
instruments in the work against torture which outlines the rights of an individual, outlaws torture, and promotes respect for the human rights of an individual.
When a UN member state has become a party to the Convention, the government of that
country is accountable under international law to take action to prevent torture and to support the victims when torture takes place.
According to the Association for the Prevention of Torture, “the Convention against Torture requires that all States, and each of us, remain vigilant to the risks of torture. This is what makes it so relevant in 2014, thirty years after its adoption.”
You can read more about the countries that have ratified the UNCAT by clicking on this link. For comprehensive profiles on each UN member state, the United Nations website provides a full country list.
Guest blogger, Aisha Maniar of the London Guantánamo Campaign takes us through the longest-running criminal trial in modern Russian history and describes how the use of torture to extract confessions remains widespread.
More than 30 years since the UN Convention against Torture entered into force, torture remains a regular practice in many states, with impunity. A recently concluded trial in the Russian Federation shows how prevalent reliance on torture evidence remains in some regions.
On 13 October 2005, groups of armed men carried out attacks on public institutions in Nalchik, the capital city of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) in the volatile North Caucasus region of the Russian Federation. In the ensuing violence, which was quelled the following day, more than 150 people died, mainly attackers, and more than 100 were injured. Two militant groups claimed responsibility for the attacks.
It nonetheless took more than nine years to reach a verdict in what became the longest-running criminal trial in modern Russian history, with the largest number of defendants. On 23 December 2014, guilty verdicts were delivered against all 58 defendants in a trial tainted by torture evidence and efforts to obstruct the legal process, resulting in changes to the Russian criminal law; some commentators and human rights NGOs compared it to a show trial worthy of the Stalinist era.
In the days following the attacks, more than 2000 people were arrested; some were forced from their homes by armed police and others handed themselves in for questioning. By the end of the year, 59 remained in detention (one of the defendants died before the case went to trial).
In the week after their arrest, stories and images of their torture at the Nalchik pre-trial detention centre (SIZO) started to emerge. The images quickly circulated in the media causing an outrage which led to official admission that the suspects were tortured but the claims were never investigated. At least one of the defendants has a pending claim at the European Court of Human Rights for the torture he suffered.
The suspects were tortured into signing confessions that were self-incriminating and that incriminated others. In some cases, they did not know the persons they were incriminating. All charged with at least ten offences under the Russian Criminal Code, at trial, many withdrew their confessions, claiming they had been tortured into making them. Those who admitted involvement in the attacks did not plead guilty to all the charges against them. Indeed, many defendants had credible alibis and witnesses to prove it. One defendant was at university in another town at the time, which his teacher and classmates could vouch for; he was nonetheless given a 14-year sentence.
The torture and abuse did not end there; since 2005, and now pending appeal of their sentences, the defendants have been held at the Nalchik SIZO in cramped, unhygienic conditions which are inadequate for short-term pre-trial detention, let alone almost a decade. In addition, beatings by guards are not infrequent as well as prisoners being placed in solitary confinement as arbitrary punishment. On occasion, the defendants have gone on hunger strike in protest. Denied adequate medical attention, the past decade has taken its toll on the health of many defendants, who were healthy young men when they were jailed. Investigating these further claims of abuse has been hampered by the harassment of lawyers and restricted access to them.
Inside the courtroom, the trial was delayed when the defendants were denied a jury trial; instead, changes were made to the Russian Criminal Code retrospectively to restrict jury trials in such cases, thereby leaving the decision on the admissibility of torture evidence to a panel of three judges who passed the verdict. The dubious nature of the judgment is reflected in the fact that none of the four defendants caught with weapons in their possession were among the five given life sentences. More curiously, in a case hinging on the violent deaths of so many people, the murder charge was dropped against all the defendants, meaning that no one convicted in this case is responsible for the deaths. The implication of a former Guantánamo prisoner who lived just outside Nalchik in the attacks was used to justify the disproportionate response by the Russian authorities.
Amnesty International slammed the verdict as “a textbook case of criminal injustice, where the authorities manifestly refused to investigate allegations of torture, despite overwhelming evidence, and the defendants languished for nine years in pre-trial detention, all in violation of international law”. Human Rights Watch called on the authorities “to finally conduct effective and impartial investigations into the torture, hold those responsible to account, and immediately withdraw as evidence any coerced statements by the defendants.”
Lyudmila Alexeyeva from the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group visited some of the defendants at the SIZO and was told by them, “you would have confessed too, if you had been through what we have had to go through.”
For more information on the case in English: https://onesmallwindow.wordpress.com/2014/12/31/creating-a-state-of-mass-terror-in-the-north-caucasus/