Posts Tagged torture

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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5 powerful anti-torture campaigns

Throughout the years, we have been moved by some powerful anti-torture campaigns seeking to highlight the horrors of torture and its devastating impact on the victims and their families. With less than two months to 26 June, which is also the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, we are in campaign mode and saw it fit to share some of the most effective campaigns from the anti-torture movement.

As some of the campaigns on our list show, powerful can also be controversial.

Sounds from torture – Amnesty International Portugal

First up is this campaign from Amnesty International Portugal. As the name suggests, the campaign from last year was built around sounds of torture. At the center of the campaign is a drum set made up of objects used in torture methods. Created by artists and musicians, the drum set was on display around the country, creating awareness about different torture methods and amplifying the pain sounds to make everyone listen.

For those interested, you can still test each instrument on the campaign website – just prepare yourselves for some terrifying sounds.

Visit the campaign here.

“Torture a man and he’ll say anything” – Amnesty International Belgium

This satirical campaign, also from 2014, was controversial for various reasons. The use of brutal imagery of famous people quickly got the internet talking, but the campaign suffered a blow when it was revealed that Amnesty used images of its subjects without permission.

'Torture a man and he’ll say anything' by Amnesty International Belgium

Campaign by Amnesty International Belgium

Controversial or not, the campaign certainly had the shock factor that many other campaigns can only dream of. One of the images showed a beaten up Iggy Pop together with the quote “Justin Bieber is the future of Rock and Roll”, and followed by: “Torture a man and he’ll say anything. Torture is not just inhumane, it’s ineffective. Stop it”. The message and image are very powerful together and address a sad reality – that most people believe torture works.

“Torturer Wanted” – Freedom from Torture

In 2012, Freedom from Torture, an IRCT member in the UK, placed a series of mock advertisements in The Guardian and the Independent. The aim was to create awareness and get people to think about torture in a different way – an objective that seemed to work.

Right in the middle, between the usual job suspects, job seekers could read the ad for a “Torturer”, which offered an annual salary of between £16,000 and £21,000.

The ad then read: “The government of a Middle Eastern state is recruiting a senior torturer to work in a well-equipped prison. Our ideal candidate would be prepared to inflict extreme pain and suffering. Familiarity with dental and medical equipment and knowledge of human anatomy is required…” (to read the full ad, click here).

The reality portrayed by the campaign was a surprise to the general public. The reality is, torture – and torturers – exist and is a common practice around the world. Lack of awareness about it impedes the work done by torture rehabilitation organisations like Freedom from Torture. The campaign received plenty of attention and support from the media, other NGOs and on social media.

“Fighting Impunity” – International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT)

Unlike some of the other campaigns on this list, last year’s “Fighting Impunity” campaign by the IRCT used more traditional tactics to raise awareness about torture and impunity.

Culminating on 26 June, which is the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the campaign sought to mobilise IRCT members and other torture rehabilitation organisations around the world, and engage with the general public on social media.

'No Impunity' poster by IRCT

‘No Impunity’ by IRCT

The campaign depicted four archetypical torturers making the “shhh” finger gesture for quiet. The images were accompanied by the message: “Those who tortured you to speak now want you silent”.

110 organisations all over the world joined the campaign to call for the end to impunity, organising their own events, and thousands of people and NGOs showed their support on social media.

You can read more about the campaign here.

Getting Away With Torture – Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has for many years been a strong opponent of torture and other ill-treatment of numerous detainees in US custody at the Guantanamo detention camp.

In its latest efforts to bring those responsible to justice, HRW recently released a petition calling on the Obama administration to order a full criminal investigation into torture and other serious abuses at Guantanamo Bay.

In the petition, HRW says that despite overwhelming evidence of torture and other ill-treatment of numerous detainees in US custody after 9/11, the US government has not held a single senior official accountable.

Whether the HRW petition will amount to any significant changes, it serves as an important tool to pressure the US Government and ensure that what happened at Guantanamo will not be forgotten or swept under the carpet.

The campaign is still ongoing and you can sign the petition here.

For other not-for-profit and human rights campaigns, including anti-torture initiatives, we recommend that you visit the brilliant ‘resource for all things in the world of non-profit and social messaging’ website www.osocio.org

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Four famous supporters of the anti-torture movement and why we need more

In all corners of the world, there are people whose support for the anti-torture movement makes an enormous difference to torture survivors, their families and caregivers. Among them are some high profile individuals who are using their name and status to raise awareness about torture and to promote justice for torture victims. We highlight four of them and their actions, and look at why the movement needs more supporters like them.

It is not every day that a blog on torture includes a famous rapper, a retired bishop and a baptist minister, but that is nonetheless the case with our list of anti-torture supporters:

#1 Mos Def

The first on our list is American rapper and actor Mos Def, also known as Yasiin Bey. In addition to his music and acting career, Mos Def is a strong supporter of the anti-torture movement and he has taken unorthodox measures to raise awareness about torture and ill treatment. Most notably, he starred in a campaign video for human rights organisation Reprieve, in which he volunteered to be force-fed through the nose to bring attention to the force-feeding of 44 detainees on hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay.

The video was released in July 2013 via the Guardian, and quickly went viral. In fact, it became the eight most viewed video in the history of The Guardian. But not everyone was a fan of the project. The following year, Mos Def, who lives in South Africa, was forced to cancel his tour in the United States after immigration refused his entry to the country.

#2 Desmond Tutu

Nobel Peace Laureate, Archbishop and human rights activist – Desmond Tutu’s many roles and achievements make others pale in comparison. A leading figure in the justice and racial reconciliation movement in South Africa, Desmond Tutu is also a strong advocate for a world free from torture.

Desmond Tutu (Courtesy of Joshua Wanyama, via Flickr Creative Commons)

Desmond Tutu (Courtesy of Joshua Wanyama, via Flickr Creative Commons)

Before retiring, he voiced criticism of serious violations of human rights, including Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe and the Israeli government’s mistreatment of Palestinians.

Desmond Tutu may be retired, but he is still involved in the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre, which he founded together with his wife in 1998. He is also protector of IRCT member centre in Denmark DIGNITY, and continues to speak out against torture.

#3 Rev. Jesse Jackson

In addition to being a Baptist minister and former politician, Jesse Jackson is one of America’s most renowned civil rights activists. While many know him for his work with the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson has also been very vocal in ensuring justice for victims of torture. He has for years been a supporter of the many men who were tortured by Chicago police, led by former Commander Jon Burge, during the 1970s and 1980s. When the Mayor of Chicago recently issued an apology and proposed a $5.5 million reparations fund for dozens of torture victims, Jesse Jackson called for a “truth and reconciliation commission”, saying if it was good enough for South Africa it is good enough for Chicago.

Jesse Jackson (Courtesy of United States Mission Geneva, via Flickr Creative Commons)

Jesse Jackson (Courtesy of United States Mission Geneva, via Flickr Creative Commons)

“Because Jon Burge was in charge, he was the commander,” Jackson said. “He did not do this alone. Other police witnessed Jon Burge torturing these men.”

#4 Rage Against the Machine, REM, Nine Inch Nails and others

The last one on our list is not just one person, but a group of musicians whose efforts we thought should be mentioned.

Upon discovering that their music had been used in interrogations of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, high profile musicians such as REM, Pearl Jam and Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor joined the Close Gitmo Now campaign.

Tom Morello (Courtesy of Thomas Hawk, via Flickr Creative Commons)

Tom Morello (Courtesy of Thomas Hawk, via Flickr Creative Commons)

Launched in 2009, Close Gitmo Now is a coalition of activists, artists and retired generals aiming to put pressure on US politicians to close the Guantanamo Bay detention centre.

Speaking out against Guantanamo Bay and the use of music as no-touch torture there, Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine said:

“Guantanamo is known around the world as one of the places where human beings have been tortured – from water boarding, to stripping, hooding and forcing detainees into humiliating sexual acts – playing music for 72 hours in a row at volumes just below that to shatter the eardrums. Guantanamo may be Dick Cheney’s idea of America, but it’s not mine. The fact that music I helped create was used in crimes against humanity sickens me – we need to end torture and close Guantanamo now.”

The need for more high profile supporters

While the support of well-known musicians or other high profile individuals alone is not enough, it can raise public awareness and influence the general debate. Guantanamo Bay is the prime example of this. Although the world’s most notorious detention camp still remains in operation, what goes on there never fully escapes public scrutiny.

Sadly, in other parts of the world, there are numerous cases of torture that will never receive even a fraction of the attention that Guantanamo Bay gets. Not enough people care. If torture victims had the support of a well-known name, they might be able to get the attention they need to bring the perpetrators to justice. The same goes for most torture rehabilitation centres that often struggle financially. Without this form of support, it can be difficult to attract potential donors or raise additional funds. One of the biggest challenges in the fight against torture is apathy. The support of famous people can make a difference.

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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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Right to rehabilitation still not a reality for most victims of torture

Around the world, conflicts and humanitarian crises result in migratory flows of millions of asylum seekers, refugees and internally displaced persons every year. According to health professionals and researchers, as many as 35% of refugees worldwide could be victims of torture.

It used to be that those lucky enough to be near a torture rehabilitation centre were able to seek treatment, but in many places the number of victims of torture has now reached a point where the need for rehabilitation exceeds the services available.

To support victims of torture, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) last year adopted and promoted a policy on the Right to Rehabilitation in accordance with the United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT) Comment 3.

The policy highlights the obligation of states to ensure that victims of torture have free and prompt access to rehabilitation services. Sadly, as the rehabilitation sector is facing a funding crisis, this commitment is more important than ever.

The Za'atari refugee camp, Jordan. (Courtesy of UNHCR/Brian Sokol, via Flickr Creative Commons)

The Za’atari refugee camp, Jordan. (Courtesy of UNHCR/Brian Sokol, via Flickr Creative Commons)

For many rehabilitation centres, the future is not looking bright. They operate in situations where their fate is continuously uncertain and because of a reduction in funding, some of them are even at risk of closing.

Yet, getting states to fully commit to the rehabilitation of victims of torture is not an easy task. This is something that becomes particularly apparent in countries where torture is carried out by the state, and where health professionals and rehabilitation service providers are constantly under threat.

Whether it is doctors being arrested and tortured simply for trying to save lives in Syria or rehabilitation centres in Latin America being exposed to threats and other intimidation tactics, it is clear that access to health and in particular, the right to rehabilitation is far from a reality in many parts of the world.

So how do we face these challenges?

An important step is to change the way that everyone from states and governments to the people they govern perceive torture and rehabilitation for torture victims. Those who believe that the practice of torture can be justified must be reminded that it is a serious human rights violation that can never be tolerated.

In addition, decision makers need to understand that rehabilitation should not be a service provided mostly by civil society organisations if and when international agencies and philanthropists decide to fund it. In fact, each and every state has a responsibility to ensure that torture victims everywhere have free and prompt access to rehabilitation services.

Without this change in attitude, political will and appropriate funding, we cannot guarantee that victims of torture receive the rehabilitation services they need.

And without offering rehabilitation to victims of torture, we are denying hundreds of thousands of people worldwide their last and only hope to reclaim their life and dignity, lost at the hands of perpetrators.

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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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Countries in desperate need of ratifying the UN Convention against Torture

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.

India

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.

Fiji

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 the past 12 months alone, at least 5,000 people have been killed and there are reports of torture, including sexual violence, and other human rights abuses.

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.

Source: The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT)

Source: The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT)

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.

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