Posts Tagged human rights

Europe’s Narrow Lead on Prosecuting CIA Torture

In her latest blog, guest blogger Aisha Maniar of the London Guantánamo Campaign writes about the few, but encouraging efforts in Europe to prosecute those believed to have been complicit in the notorious CIA rendition programme.

The December 2014 publication of the redacted findings and conclusions of the US Senate Select Committee investigation into the CIA’s use of torture shed further light on and confirmed some of the worst practices of the extraordinary rendition programme, leading to calls for prosecution of those involved.

Eight months on, little has changed. On 24 June, a coalition of over 100 groups worldwide sent a letter to the UN Human Rights Council calling for accountability, prosecution and reparations for CIA torture.

Throughout the CIA’s long history of ‘coercive forms of interrogation’, prosecutions have been few. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, however, there have been some encouraging moves against those believed to have been involved in the rendition programme.

On 23 June, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) heard a case brought against Italy by an Egyptian national for its collusion in his abduction and ‘rendition’ to Egypt in 2003 where he was detained illegally and tortured for several months. Italy denies the claims and the judgment is pending, but it is a unique case as in 2012, in domestic proceedings, the Italian Supreme Court’s final judgment in the related criminal case saw 23 US citizens convicted in absentia for his kidnapping; prison sentences and fines were imposed.

This is the first and only successful prosecution against the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme anywhere. The ramifications of this hit home a year later, in 2013, when convicted former CIA operative Robert Seldon Lady was arrested, as he transited through Panama, pending extradition to Italy to serve his eight-year sentence, although he was released the next day. He has admitted his role in the operation and that it was illegal.

This is the third such case to be heard before the ECtHR; previous cases heard against Macedonia and Poland have found both states guilty of breaches of the absolute prohibition on torture under the European Convention on Human Rights, with both ordered to pay compensation. Further cases are pending against Romania and Lithuania.

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Aside from one other case recently reopened before the African Commission for Human and People’s Rights, following new revelations against Djibouti, this is as far as international legal efforts to prosecute extraordinary rendition have gotten. Although neither court has jurisdiction over the US, these cases reveal the global extent of the extraordinary rendition programme, which would have been impossible without the collusion of so many states.

The Torture Report findings have also led the European Parliament to announce the reopening of its investigation into member state complicity in rendition in February 2015 and urging states to investigate and prosecute allegations.

Domestic efforts are still underway in some parts of Europe. As part of an ongoing criminal investigation into at least six alleged torture flights through Scottish airspace, police in Scotland are seeking access to a full non-redacted copy of the Torture Report.

In Spain, an ongoing criminal investigation brought by a number of former Guantánamo prisoners under universal jurisdiction laws was recently closed following restrictive changes to the law, but a number of NGOs have appealed this decision.

There is still much work to be done. Elsewhere, political pressure and state secrecy have seen prosecutions end prematurely or shut down. Denial remains a popular option and impunity reigns.

While the focus is on the US, the involvement of its allies must not be ignored. Investigation, prosecution and accountability matter, not just to draw a line under the crimes of the past, but to ensure they are not still occurring or will again in future.

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Around the world: 26 June in pictures

Nearly three weeks since the 26 June campaign swept the world, we continue to receive photos from the big day. As always, various torture rehabilitation centres across the globe came out in force to celebrate and honour victims and survivors of torture, and their photos offer a unique insight into some of the many activities and events that took place.

 Albania

Under the theme ‘Right to Rehabilitation’ the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims’ member Albanian Rehabilitation Centre for Trauma and Torture dedicated a special exhibition to the sufferings of victims of the communist regime. The exhibition included photographs, names and faces of people who were initially persecuted for political reasons and then imprisoned and executed without trial.

Courtesy of Albanian Rehabilitation Centre for Trauma and Torture

Courtesy of Albanian Rehabilitation Centre for Trauma and Torture

Australia

At the University of South Australia, nearly 300 people attended an event co-organised by the university and local rehabilitation centre Survivors of Torture and Trauma Assistance and Rehabilitation Service (STTARS). Regional Representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Thomas Albrecht delivered the keynote speech, discussing the global challenge of refugee protection, with specific focus on providing sustained support to survivors of violence and torture.

STTARS

Courtesy of Survivors of Torture and Trauma Assistance and Rehabilitation Service

Canada

IRCT member The Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture hosted 26 June events that saw around 140 participants, including survivors, experts and community members come together to discuss and learn about the consequences of traumatic experiences as well as the successes and challenges associated with helping torture survivors overcome their past. The day included a photo exhibition, a set of discussions, and theatrical and musical performances.

Courtesy of the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture

Courtesy of the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture

Russia

IRCT member in Russia, The Committee Against Torture organised a series of peaceful organisations in Nizhny Novgorod, Orenburg and Yoshkar-Ola dedicated to 26 June – complete with red balloons. In Moscow a similar event was organised together with Amnesty International.

Courtesy of the Committee Against Torture.

Courtesy of the Committee Against Torture.

 Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, HRO Kandy held a poster exhibition themed “Justice & Dignity for all” in the days leading up to 26 June. The exhibition, which attracted more than 3,500 visitors in the course of two days, depicted the rights of individuals through posters drawn by school children. The message that HRO Kandy wanted to share with the visitors was: “Say No to Torture”.

Courtesy of HRO Kandy

Courtesy of HRO Kandy

 

We encourage you to share your photos and stories with us either as a comment here or on our World Without Torture Facebook page.

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26 June Campaign: Supporting survivors in their fight for justice

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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.

 

The group had been imprisoned and tortured. Courtesy of kIM DARam.

The group had been imprisoned and tortured. Courtesy of kIM DARam.

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.

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Threats and persecution: Russia’s war on NGOs

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.

(Courtesy of Bryan Jones, used via Flickr creative commons license).

(Courtesy of Bryan Jones, used via Flickr creative commons license).

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.

Update:

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.

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A License to Torture under Indian Counter-terrorism Law

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.

Narendra Modi (Courtesy of narendramodiofficial, used via Flickr creative commons license).

Narendra Modi (Courtesy of narendramodiofficial, used via Flickr creative commons license).

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.

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7 myths about torture

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.

(Courtesy of takomabibelot, via Flickr Creative Commons)

(Courtesy of takomabibelot, via Flickr Creative Commons)

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
  • intentionality
  • 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.

(Courtesy of Gwendal Uguen, via Flickr Creative Commons)

Torture is not a thing of the past. (Courtesy of Gwendal Uguen, via Flickr Creative Commons)

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.

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Forced virginity testing still a problem

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.

School girls no longer need to worry about virginity testing. (Courtesy of Ikhlasul Amal , via Flickr Creative Commons)

Indonesian school girls. (Courtesy of Ikhlasul Amal, via Flickr Creative Commons)

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.”

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On the Forefront: Helping torture survivors in San Diego

WWT - Members series

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.

Staff at SURVIVORS

Staff at SURVIVORS

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.

Demonstrating a medical examination.

Demonstrating a medical examination.

“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.

Clients often prefer telling their stories in the kitchen.

Clients often prefer telling their stories in the kitchen.

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.

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Four women in the fight against torture

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

Courtesy of the IRCT

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

Yadira Narvaez (1)

Courtesy of the IRCT

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

Brazil's president, Dilma Rousseff. (Courtesy of Blog do Planalto, used via Flickr creative commons licence).

(Courtesy of Blog do Planalto, via Flickr Creative Commons)

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

Picture courtesy Yildiz Arslan, from Visavis (Denmark)

Courtesy Yildiz Arslan, from Visavis (Denmark)

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?

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400 days behind bars: Peter Greste and Egypt’s broken justice system

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.

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Mural tribute to Peter Greste (Courtesy of JAM Project, used via Flickr creative commons licence).

 

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.

Fighting impunity

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.

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