Posts Tagged torture
There is no doubt that 2016 will be another significant year for the global torture rehabilitation movement, presenting both challenges and opportunities for the sector. In this blog, we look at what 2016 has in store for us, listing some of the key highlights and challenges coming up.
Violence in connection with upcoming elections
From Samoa to Bolivia, millions of people around the world will be participating in elections this year. While most elections are expected to be peaceful, countries like Uganda and Haiti have both seen an increase in violence and human rights violations in connection with their upcoming elections. In Haiti the violence intensified after widespread allegations of fraud, and the country’s presidential runoff was eventually cancelled. In Uganda, the country’s former prime minister and current presidential candidate, Amama Mbabazi, recently accused President Yoweri Museveni of using murder, torture and violence to curtail growing support for the opposition.
Looking elsewhere, Gambia, which has a long record of torture and other human rights violations, is also due for an election in 2016, and in the DRC and Somalia there are concerns that upcoming elections could trigger violence and unrest.
The pre-election violence is a clear reminder of the need to take precautionary measures and to be ready to respond with investigation and rehabilitation.
An exhibition: Torture – The International Outlaw
Marking last year’s Human Rights Day, a group of anti-torture organisations launched an exhibition called ‘Torture – The International Outlaw’ at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. The exhibition showcases the history and the hope found in the fight against torture and gives visitors a chance to learn about torture survivors’ stories. Later this year, Europeans will also get a chance to visit the exhibition when it opens in Brussels and then goes on the road to be displayed at several key events in 2016.
10 years of OPCAT
In June this year it will be 10 years since the United Nations’ Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment – also known as OPCAT – entered into force.
The OPCAT is one of the most important international legal instruments in the protection and prevention of torture around the world. Under the OPCAT, the United Nations’ Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT) obtains unrestricted access to places around the world where persons may be deprived of their liberty, their installations and facilities and to all relevant information.
26 June is the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. On this date, anti-torture organisations and human rights activists around the world organise campaigns, activities and other events in support of torture survivors and in commemoration of victims.
Every year, there are a wide array of events, and this year is no exception. For example, the IRCT and its members will be organising lots of activities as part of their global 26 June campaign. The best way to stay up to date with upcoming events is to follow the IRCT on Facebook and Twitter.
Olympics: Torture and ill treatment of detainees in Brazil
With only six months to go until the opening ceremony in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil has bigger things to worry about than getting ready for the 2016 Olympics. As Human Rights watch noted in its latest World Report, “chronic human rights problems plague Brazil, including unlawful police killings, prison overcrowding, and torture and ill-treatment of detainees.”
Following a visit in October 2015 by the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT), the head of the delegation and Secretary-General of the IRCT Víctor Madrigal-Borloz noted that while Brazil had made efforts to tackle the problems, many of the issues the SPT highlighted during its visit in 2011 had still not been addressed.
The preparations for the Olympics have also been linked to widespread human rights abuses. Unfortunately, it is not the first time that Brazil’s human rights record has been criticised in connection with a global sports event. According to the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism, the country’s state security forces injured or detained 178 journalists who covered demonstrations in various parts of the country in the year leading up to the 2014 Football World Cup.
Electing a new Special Rapporteur on Torture
Also in 2016, the UN Human Rights Council will be electing a new Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (SRT). As only the sixth person to take on this important role, the new SRT will replace Argentinian human rights lawyer and professor, Juan Méndez who has been the SRT since 2010. The election will take place in September as part of the UN Human Rights Council’s September session.
The new SRT will be taking office at a time when the anti-torture movement is increasingly focused on putting victims at the centre of its work.
Delivering on the Right to Rehabilitation through science
The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) and Mexican rehabilitation centre Colectivo Contra la Tortura (CCTI) are hosting a global interdisciplinary scientific symposium from 5 to 7 December in Mexico City.
The Symposium, which is the tenth of its kind, is expected to be a unique and exciting opportunity for the global torture rehabilitation sector to come together to exchange experiences and research on developments in the rehabilitation of survivors of torture. The event will bring together medical professionals, researchers and experts from within the torture rehabilitation sector, as well as those working in closely related sectors, such as public mental health, violence against women and protecting persons with disabilities.
To find out more go to: www.irctsymposium2016.irct.org
In our new Fighting Torture series, we speak with different people from various sectors and backgrounds who all work with and support survivors of torture in one way or another. What does their work mean to them and what are the biggest challenges in the anti-torture and rehabilitation movement?
To kick off our new Q&A series, we speak with Asger Kjærum from the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) about his work as a human rights advocate, how dinner conversations at home shaped his interest in the health and human rights sectors and how torture is still prevalent in too many countries around the world.
Q: What is your profession and where do you work?
I have a master of law from the University of Copenhagen and I am currently the acting director of advocacy at the IRCT. I am based at our offices in Copenhagen.
Q: How long have you worked with torture survivors?
Unlike the staff of our member organisations, I predominantly do not work directly with survivors. Instead, I spend most of my time working with our members to support them in doing more effective advocacy. I have done this since I started with the IRCT in May 2007.
Q: How did you end up in this sector? Was it something you specifically wanted to do or was it more of a coincidence?
I have grown up with health and human rights at the dinner table so in terms of evolution theory, my current work is kind of the logical conclusion of merging my mother and father. In 2006, I did and internship with an NGO working with the UN in Geneva and one of my main assignments was covering the work of the Committee against Torture. Two things that struck me was how prevalent torture was all over the world and how little attention was paid to its consequences. When I returned to Denmark, a friend pointed me in the direction of the IRCT where I applied for a student assistant position. In May 2007, I started working on one of IRCT’s documentation projects before moving on to our Geneva office and eventually back to Copenhagen where I am now based.
Q: Tell us about the situation for torture survivors where you are/or your home country?
I come from Denmark and while the country was officially declared a torture free zone by the former Special Rapporteur, Manfred Novak, that is not entirely true. Torture related issues in Denmark can be roughly split into three groups. Since the 1970s, Denmark has been receiving a substantial number of refugees and asylum seekers who have been tortured. While many victims receive excellent rehabilitation services in Denmark, there are still concerns relating to victims being excluded based on residence status and the lack of an effective system to identify and document torture victims among the larger asylum seeker population.
Another problem experienced in Denmark relates to the State’s response whenever credible allegations of torture and ill-treatment surface. While there are very few cases, the ones that do come up face significant obstruction in their path to justice. As an example, during the COP15 climate conference in 2009, an alleged international terrorist (mistaken identity) accused the police of ill-treatment while in custody.
After a year of “investigation”, the case was closed with the rather perplexing excuse that the police could not identify the officers involved. This can only be understood as an open admission that at a time where all the leaders of the world were in Copenhagen, the Danish police did not know who had an international terrorist in custody in the very same city. While the excuse put forward is never valid, the fact that no official was investigated either for ill-treatment or incompetence, illustrates how ineffective police oversight is, even in Denmark.
The final issue relates to treatment of persons in custody where Denmark is frequently criticised for excessive use of forced treatment and coercive measures against persons with psychosocial disabilities, pre-trial detention and solitary confinement.
Q: Can you describe a typical day in the office/field for you?
Most days are spent behind the computer or in internal meetings always accompanied by the IRCT’s world famous coffee, sparkling water and a piece of cake baked by one of my wonderful colleagues. When working outside the office, I usually find myself in workshops with our members or at meetings at the UN in Geneva. Unfortunately, the Geneva meetings are always accompanied by terrible coffee and dry sandwiches.
Q: What does your work mean to you?
Enabling people and organisations to help those who need it the most.
Q: Can you give us an example of how you have seen your work make a difference?
With the IRCT I was very actively involved in ensuring that the Committee against Torture’s General Comment 3 setting out the right to rehabilitation is as detailed and thorough as it is. I am very happy to see that the General Comment has become a reference point for the entire rehabilitation movement and that it is starting to be used as the standard, against which national laws and policies on rehabilitation are measured.
On the more personal level, it is incredible for me to work with individual health staff at our member centres and help them use their extensive health based knowledge about torture to become first class human rights advocates at home and at the UN.
Q: How has your sector/industry changed since you started?
I think the IRCT movement has moved through stages of democratisation and integration. When I started, I saw an emerging democracy with challenges in ensuring coherence between governance, secretariat and members and between individual members. What I see now is an increasingly democratic and integrated movement where governance, secretariat and membership is more in accord. From the members I meet, I also hear a growing interest in the membership taking collective action on global issues of common interest, such as how to ensure that the rehabilitation sector is sufficiently resourced to meet the expectations of all victims.
Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the sector/industry?
In most countries, demand for rehabilitation services by far outstrips the supply. And behind this discrepancy lies unimaginable suffering for individuals, their families and communities.
Q: What are your hopes for the future?
In the rehabilitation movement we are very good at seeing the individual person behind numbers, legal provisions, etc. I believe that if we continue to learn from and empower these individuals, we can do three things to narrow or eliminate the gap between supply and demand and the human suffering behind. We can learn from victims’ experiences to improve the quality and effectiveness of our services; we can work with victims to better illustrate the significant negative impact on individuals and communities of not rehabilitating people and thereby convince others to support or join our efforts; and we can work with victims to advocate against torture to prevent it from happening in the future. This would be a significant contribution towards eradicating torture from the planet.
Q: According to various surveys, many people do not think torture is such a big problem; that it is a thing of the past; or that sometimes it is necessary. What would you say to them?
I would suggest that they look at what is happening in prisons in Brazil, Nigeria and the Philippines, mental hospitals in Serbia, asylum seeker processing centres in Nauru, or clinics for “gay conversion therapy” in the US. I would also suggest that they speak with an actual victim of torture and hear about his or her experience. If that does not change their mind, I do not know what will.
We need to get back to an understanding that torture is fundamentally a “barbaric act deprived of humanity” rather than “a violation of laws x, y, and z” and if we get there, I am not sure that we will be having the necessity discussion. Just like no one is arguing for the reinstitution of slavery to deal with the financial crisis. Unfortunately, many human rights advocates and much of the international community tend to talk about torture in terms that completely fail to reflect the nature of the act. One way of changing this in discussions with States is by contrasting torture with acts that are evidently less severe. For example, the UN Committee against Torture has contrasted States’ criminal sanctions for torture with those imposed for stealing a chicken.
Q: And finally, many of us do care about torture survivors and victims. How can we support the anti-torture and the torture rehabilitation movement?
Any private individual can do a couple of things to help us eradicate torture. First, you can help us increase the resources available for rehabilitation by private donation or by encouraging your government to donate to any of the organisations that provide rehabilitation services either directly or through re-distribution mechanisms. By a rough estimate, the annual redistribution of funds to rehabilitation centres in the developing world totals less than 10 million USD and grants to individual organisations are often as low as 5.000-10.000 USD. In comparison, one new fighter jet costs around 140 million USD.
Second, you can encourage your government to take responsibility for the rehabilitation of torture victims on its territory and any person the State has tortured now or in the past wherever they are. In most countries in the world, the rehabilitation services that do exist are run by non-governmental organisations and are not funded by the State that tortured the victims they treat. Even when dictatorships become democracies they rarely take much responsibility for the acts of the past and never at the scale of the suffering they caused. It is high time that this changes.
Finally, we can all change the way we speak about torture in order to not dilute the term from the very severe acts it is meant to describe. It is not torture when your son cannot sleep or your wife will not let you go out with your buddies. Torture is electrocuting children, keeping persons chained to a bed for weeks, making more than 100 prisoners spend 23 hours per day inside a shipping container in the Brazilian heat for months, or making a person think he is about to die from drowning 140 times. Many criticise the former Bush administration for starting a global snowball of legalisation of torture. But in my view, the great tragedy is the fact that it amplified an already existing global trend of public apathy about torture. Changing that starts with the way we speak about it.
The use of riot police, the construction of a 175 km razor-wire fence and threats of deportation. These are just some of the harsh measures taken by the Hungarian government to curb the influx of refugees entering the country. Meanwhile, Hungarian NGOs are providing much needed support and relief to the refugees who have made it to the country. One of these NGOs is IRCT member centre the Cordelia Foundation, which is based in Budapest. The centre offers psychiatric and psychosocial care to torture survivors. We spoke with the centre’s Medical Director Lilla Hardi about travelling to the Hungarian border to help out at the front line.
“We have seen a huge number of refugees at the railway stations in Budapest and have heard that the situation at the border is really catastrophic and chaotic.”
In an email, Dr. Lilla Hardi explains why she and 11 colleagues from the Cordelia Foundation rehabilitation centre decided to travel to the border between Hungary and Serbia last month. They made two trips to assess the refugee situation and to offer their support to those in need of rehabilitation services.
On their first trip they were denied access to the refugees. However, on their second trip they managed to treat a number of people each day.
According to Dr. Hardi, most of the refugees she saw seemed to be doing relatively well physically, but suffered from serious mental health problems as a direct result of the traumatising events they had experienced.
“Many of the newly arrived refugees were in a very bad state mentally. They were very exhausted and desperate,” she writes. “I think aggressive manifestations in their behaviour might happen due to their traumatised and desperate state. This situation is another trauma contributing to their already unbalanced mental state and earlier traumatisation.”
Empirical studies by the Chamber of Psychotherapists in Germany echo this assessment, suggesting that at least half of the refugees coming to the country have mental health problems because of the trauma suffered in war or during their dangerous escapes. An even bigger number of these refugees have been subjected to human rights violations, including torture, says the Chamber.
In the ongoing political debate, there seems to be hardly any focus on early identification of torture victims among newly arrived refugees and no coordinated response schemes are available. Currently, the work carried out by the Cordelia Foundation and other organisations in support of traumatised refugees is largely done on a voluntary basis. This shows how urgent the need is for States to acknowledge their obligation and provide the resources and mechanisms to support and protect victims of torture.
However, in Hungary, the government’s response to the crisis so far has been to close off a railway track used by tens of thousands of refugees to enter the European Union on foot. This is all part of its crackdown on refugees coming from Serbia.
Personally, Dr. Hardi did not experience any hostility from Hungarian police, but she notes how strange it is to see police officers wearing masks and gloves. “They wear them in the belief that it prevents them from getting ‘contaminated’,” she explains.
The fact that Hungarian police officers find it necessary to wear masks and gloves to protect themselves from disease and contamination illustrates the general lack of compassion for the refugees coming to Europe and the lack of understanding there is for what many of them have been through.
“In one of the detention centres we met a Syrian family of 12 who had been transferred from the border that very day. The head of the family used to be a high-rank public service person in his country. They had witnessed the beheading of about 500 persons in their city,” writes Dr. Hardi.
“All of the family members were seriously traumatised and showed serious symptoms of PTSD. One of them had lost a lower limb and had a temporary prosthesis; another suffered from diabetes and needed insulin urgently. We asked one of the nurses to monitor him and to give him the insulin that he had brought himself.
The team from the Cordelia Foundation also alerted the local authorities to the fact that the family needed help.
“We introduced them to our local therapist and our psychiatrist who is in charge of our clients on a weekly basis. She has been taking care of the family since then. We immediately wrote a short medical report on their state ordering them to be released as they belong to the vulnerable group. However, the authorities did not release them. Instead they extended their stay in detention by another 30 days.”
With the situation in Syria unchanged and other armed conflicts continuing to disrupt the Middle Eastern and Sub-Saharan region, hundreds of thousands are left with no other choice than to flee war, violence and human rights abuses, torture being one of them.
When asked what she thinks will happen, Dr. Hardi replies:
“Nobody knows. The situation is permanently changing.”
This month, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) will be in New York to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize. The IRCT belongs to an exclusive group of non-profit organisations that have received the prestigious Prize and grant. As the group welcomes its 20th member, we look back to 2003, when the IRCT became only the eighth organisation to win the Prize.
For the Copenhagen-based umbrella organisation, the award could not have come at a better time. 2003 had been a very challenging year financially – not only for the IRCT, but for the whole torture rehabilitation sector. A time that mirrors the current situation unfolding across the globe.
Some of the IRCT’s member centres were struggling to keep afloat and programmes were in risk of closing because of lack of funding. In Europe, a change in EU policy had led to an increased focus on the prevention of torture, while support and funding to the rehabilitation of torture victims had been decreasing.
The Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian grant enabled the IRCT to assist some of the rehabilitation centres in need, through the allocation of direct grants to rehabilitation centres and programmes in financial difficulties. In some cases, this was the difference between centres surviving or not.
Acknowledging the work of torture rehabilitation centres
The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation is named after its founder, the late hotel entrepreneur who left the bulk of his fortune to the Foundation with instructions to use the funds to help the most disadvantaged and vulnerable throughout the world. Recipients of the Prize include SOS-Kinderdorf International, Médecins Sans Frontières, Heifer International and Operation Smile.
When the Foundation chose IRCT as the 2003 laureate, it put the spotlight on the widespread use of torture by governments, and recognised the extraordinary work performed every day by staff in rehabilitation centres and programmes for torture victims worldwide. Just as importantly, the Prize was a tribute to torture survivors and their families, and to the strength of human spirit they display in their determination to overcome the horror of torture to live in dignity.
At the time Mr Steven M. Hilton, President of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, said, “By addressing the unimaginable suffering of men, women and even children who have endured torture, IRCT personifies the purpose of the Hilton Humanitarian Prize, which is to recognise and support the work of organisations alleviating human suffering throughout the world.”
When asked about the impact of the award, then IRCT Secretary-General Dr. Jens Modvig explained that torture is not an easy subject to put before the public, but the Hilton award helped break this silence and remind us that we all have a responsibility to see that torture is eradicated and to help survivors of torture rebuild their lives.
Twelve years on, the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize continues to have a positive impact on the torture rehabilitation movement. Winning the award sent a clear signal to potential donors and foundations that the IRCT and its member organisations are worth supporting.
With this in mind, the IRCT is excited to attend this year’s prize ceremony and to welcome the 20th recipient into the prestigious list of winners. Given today’s global challenges facing many organisations in the humanitarian sector, the need for foundations like the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation is greater than ever. Hopefully, the prize will once again raise awareness about the global need for humanitarian aid and the power of philanthropy, encouraging others to expand their support.
This year’s winner of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize will be announced at a prize ceremony in New York on 14 October.
No money for support to the most vulnerable: Europe’s funding crisis for rehabilitation of torture victims
As Europe is facing a historically high influx of refugees – many of whom are survivors of torture – the need for proper care and rehabilitation of torture victims is greater than ever. Yet, there is a serious funding shortage across the continent, which has left a growing number of torture rehabilitation centres in dire financial straits. According to the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), if states do not reverse this trend, we will see an acute loss of support services to those vulnerable and most in need.
“The cut in funding over the past five years has affected our work drastically and we have had to reduce the number of staff as well as patients. But now, it affects our actual existence. The facts are very simple: today, we have enough money in the bank to continue our work throughout September, but not in October.”
This is how the Director for Programs at French rehabilitation centre and IRCT member Parcours d’exil, Jérôme Boillat describes the centre’s current funding situation. A situation that could very well lead to its closure and leave hundreds of traumatised torture victims untreated.
Across the English Channel, London based Refugee Therapy Centre has also fallen victim to the funding crisis. After more than 15 years of providing psychological therapy and associated treatments to thousands of refugees and asylum seekers, the centre is now forced to downscale its work to three days a week. Going from operating five days a week to only three days inevitably means leaving behind torture victims in desperate need of help.
“The success of our work can be measured by the smiles made possible after interventions to heal the psychological and emotional wounds of those whose basic human rights were violated by torture and persecution. To continue with essential humanitarian work, our centre desperately needs financial support,” says Refugee Therapy Centre’s Clinical Director and CEO Dr Aida Alayarian.
The two situations in France and the UK are far from the only examples of torture rehabilitation centres scrambling for funding. At least 11 IRCT member centres and numerous programs that have helped thousands of torture victims across Europe have either lost funding or are predicting major cuts that will inevitably affect torture victims.
In Austria, upon learning that it may lose vital funding from the EU, an IRCT member is sharing its grim forecast: “If this funding were to be cut or stopped, we would have to reduce our support to survivors of torture drastically. As it is, there is hardly any funding for this target group on a local or national level. The only funding sources are international bodies and even their funding is being cut,” the centre explains and continues:
“Much of our work is in refugee shelters and no other Austrian organisation does the exact same kind of work. Referrals cannot be made because the only other organisation in our country working in this field has also very limited resources and they have their own clients. There are hardly any doctors or social services which have intercultural competencies.”
Europe is currently experiencing a massive increase in numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, driven by conflict, humanitarian crises and human rights violations, particularly in the Middle East and Africa. While Eurostat figures found that around 945.000 of asylum seekers entering the EU between 2002 and 2012 were victims of torture, there is no longer any doubt that this number will be much higher in 2015.
However, the urgent treatment and rehabilitation of torture victims is not adequately covered by EU member states, despite their obligations under international human rights and EU law.
The responsibility to provide rehabilitation to torture victims lies with the state. Yet in almost all EU countries, insufficient resources are being earmarked to provide specialised health services to vulnerable groups, including torture victims. This leaves rehabilitation centres to fill the gap.
“We know that a significant percentage of asylum seekers and refugees in the EU are torture victims and require access to rehabilitation services as early as possible. Our European member centres are doing their best to help as many people as possible, but sadly, many of these centres have had to cut their support services to torture victims due to a lack of funding,” says Miriam Reventlow, Advocacy Director at the IRCT.
The funding shortage affects traumatised refugees and asylum seekers at various stages. In Germany for example, newly arrived refugees and asylum seekers are among the groups that will be hit hard by a reduction in funding.
“The German state still has no early identification system for vulnerable groups, especially not for torture survivors. When it comes to rehabilitation of torture survivors, the competences and capacities of the regular healthcare system are still far behind the actual need. Moreover, there exists no funding for this type of work by the German government. By law, refugees have limited access to the regular health care system until the moment they are granted a residence permit. Psychosocial therapy centres try to cover this gap, while at the same time navigating through political changes,” explains Christian Cleusters from German rehabilitation centre Medical Care Service for Refugees Bochum.
So what can be done to ensure that as many torture victims as possible receive the treatment they need?
According to the IRCT, the answer is simple: every country in the EU will have to recognise their obligations under international human rights law and EU law and designate adequate resources within their healthcare budgets. But also, the EU institutions play a key role in providing sufficient funding and need to uphold their support to this important field of work.
“If we don’t generate more support, thousands of torture victims risk having current treatment programmes interrupted or will be unable to access rehabilitation services in the first place. European countries all have a responsibility to ensure that there is enough funding to provide rehabilitation to victims of torture, and we need them to take this responsibility seriously,” says Miriam Reventlow.
In the UK, when asked how the Refugee Therapy Centre has helped them overcome their trauma, one torture survivor explains: “The group has helped me confront my problems and let go of the past. Now I can think of the future.”
For another survivor, the treatment has simply improved his quality of life: “I do not feel ashamed of being myself anymore and I can sleep a little better now.”
With less funding and no action from European leaders, the question is how many torture victims will be prevented from receiving the treatment they need to fully recover from their past trauma and be able to find a new path of life in their host country.
Eight months ago, the future was finally starting to look bright for Yecenia Armenta Graciano. After spending more than two years in prison in the state of Sinaloa, having been accused of ordering her husband’s murder, a judge had ruled that Yecenia’s confession had been obtained through torture and therefore could not be used as evidence in the case. Her supporters saw the ruling as a victory for justice and hoped it would lead to her release. Yet Yecenia remains in prison today.
The picture Yecenia paints of her experience in July 2012 is one of torture, rape and threats. She alleges that plainclothes police officers arrested her not long after the murder of her husband, and tortured her for 15 hours.
During that time she says she was raped, tortured and threatened before she confessed to ordering her husband’s murder. Blindfolded, she signed the confession form. No one questioned or checked her injuries and marks of torture and she was imprisoned. As time went on, her visible injuries faded and eventually disappeared.
Various human rights groups have criticised the local authorities for dismissing Yecenia’s allegations and for protecting the perpetrators.
The criticism only grew louder when the Office of the Mexican Attorney-General conducted a medical and psychological examination of Yecenia concluding that there was no evidence of physical torture or mistreatment related to her allegations, and her psychological symptoms were not related to the allegations.
Then in early 2015, after carrying out examinations in accordance with the international standards set out in the Istanbul Protocol, two experts from the Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG) supported Yecenia’s claim that she had been tortured.
Based on these findings, the court ordered the State Attorney to further investigate the case and punish the perpetrators. To many, this was a sign that Yecenia would soon be free, but she is still behind bars, having spent more than three years away from her children.
In an Amnesty International Campaign demanding her immediate release, she wrote: “I’ve seen summers come and fade, people arrive at and then leave this place, and all the time my children are growing up, outside these walls. Three years of change and movement: but still I remain here. At times I must admit I’ve felt very tired, and defeated”.
Sadly, Yecenia’s story is not an isolated case. In May 2014, 11 female survivors of sexual torture launched the campaign “Breaking the Silence: together against sexual torture”, aiming to raise awareness of other cases of sexually tortured women. The women had been sexually tortured by a number of state forces, including the armed forces, the navy and the police, with many of them tortured into making false confessions for various crimes.
Human rights groups say that torture is rife in Mexico and is routinely used by the security forces to extract confessions or information. According to the “Breaking the Silence: together against sexual torture” campaign, Mexican women in particular are faced with a systematic pattern of sexual torture by state institutions that fail to provide the protection society expects of them.
Recently there have been some signs of action by the Mexican authorities to eradicate torture and combat impunity, but the number of convictions in cases of torture is low.
In the meantime, Yecenia is sitting in a prison cell in Northern Mexico, hoping that she will soon be reunited with her children. Her case is no longer with the State court of Sinaloa, but has been moved to the Supreme Court of Justice, where it is pending hearing.
After everything she has been through, human rights defenders remain hopeful that Mexico’s highest court will finally grant Yecenia her freedom.
In Yecenia’s own words: “Freedom is vital for any human being. Freedom helps us breathe, it helps us live fully. I also want to be free, free to be myself, just the way I am.”
To find out more or to sign Amnesty International’s petition to free Yecenia Armenta Graciano click here.
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.
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.
In Senegal, a truly historic trial is unfolding as Chad’s former dictator Hissene Habré stands accused of crimes against humanity and torture, 25 years after his eight-year brutal rule ended. The trial that is highly anticipated by Habré’s victims, their families and human rights organisations, is the first of an African leader on the African continent for human rights violations.
25 years is a long time to wait, especially when you are seeking justice for human rights violations committed against you. Nonetheless, this is how long former Chad dictator Hissene Habré’s alleged victims and their families have had to wait before they could see him brought to trial for crimes against humanity and torture.
Many victims have been calling for it since his overthrow and exile in Senegal in 1990. A Chadian Truth Commission accused Habré’s government of 40,000 political murders and systematic torture. According to the commission, most abuses were carried out by his political police, the Documentation and Security Directorate, whose directors reported directly to the dictator.
Yet, despite being accused of thousands of political murders and systematic torture during his eight-year rule, Habré managed to live in Senegal for 22 years without being arrested.
It was not until August 2012, that Senegal and the African Union (AU) signed an agreement to establish the Extraordinary African Chambers, a special court in the Senegalese justice system, for Habré’s trial, putting an end to more than decade of legal wrangling over his prosecution.
The agreement followed a landmark ruling by the International Court of Justice a month earlier, ordering Senegal to bring Habré to justice “without further delay” either by prosecuting him domestically or extraditing him for trial.” Habré was finally arrested in July 2013.
The start of the trial against Habré on 20 July 2015 is in itself a victory for the victims, who filed the charges against Habré initially in 2000 and relentlessly fought throughout the years for their right to justice. They never stopped raising their case with politicians, the public and the media to ensure that their voices were being heard and that efforts for investigation and prosecution did not cease.
The court’s procedures allow victims to directly engage as civil parties in the trial, and over 4000 have registered to do so. In the event that Habré will be found guilty of the allegations of crimes against humanity and torture, the court can also order that reparations are paid into a victims’ fund, which will benefit all victims who have from suffered Habre’s actions.
According to The Independent, around 100 witnesses are already in Senegal’s capital Dakar, waiting to give evidence to the hearings, which are likely to last three months. The newspaper also reported that many campaigners were in court, holding signs calling for justice for the victims.
In her opening statement to the court, Jacqueline Moudeina, the leading victims’ representative, said that the trial “is in the name of humanity, a humanity which Hissene Habre never allowed his victims“.
We are still to see if the trial will lead to justice for the victims, but the fact that there is even a trial is a great milestone in African justice.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
We encourage you to share your photos and stories with us either as a comment here or on our World Without Torture Facebook page.
Every day and across the globe, women and girls are tortured and ill-treated. For some, rape is part of their ordeal and their rehabilitation path is often solitary, while governments, communities and families struggle to respond to their needs. With the support of a generous donor, 16 IRCT rehabilitation centres in 14 countries are helping thousands of these women and girls to take control of their lives through a range of activities.
Can design and sewing workshops contribute to the rehabilitation and empowerment of female victims of torture and sexual violence? If you ask two torture rehabilitation centres in Cameroon and Pakistan, the answer is yes.
For the past year, the centres have organised self-help workshops and activities with focus on how to generate income aimed at women who have been subjected to various human rights violations. The idea is to empower them to become economically independent and take control of their lives – something that also has a positive effect on their self-esteem.
The training and support provided by the programmes in Cameroon and Pakistan have proven very popular. Last year, more than 1,600 women and girls participated in an array of activities that fit with the needs of their community, including IT training, music lessons, beautician courses and small-business management.
The two centres are not the only IRCT members to run these types of events. Across the world, another 14 rehabilitation centres have implemented similar projects.
Centres in India, Iraq, Lebanon and South Africa have organised workshops led by doctors and social workers to discuss prevention and the consequences of sexual violence on women’s health, while a centre in Sierra Leone is practicing healing ceremonies to alleviate the traumatic memories of the victims and promote peace and reconciliation within the community.
As a survivor who is part of the program in Iraq, explained: “When I arrived at the centre I felt that my family and I were drowning in the sea. The centre has been like a ship that has led us to the beach where we could start a new life.”
At another centre, a woman described how she “was completely demoralised and overwhelmed by suicidal thoughts” when she came to the centre. “I thought my life was worthless after facing the stigma of having been raped twice. However, the workers at the centre helped me get my life back,” she told.
Women and girls’ empowerment is crucial to creating better and prosperous societies, but gender equality is far from a reality in many places. Women’s rights continue to be neglected with the United Nations estimating that as many as 35% of women worldwide have experienced some form of violence.
Empowerment is widely considered a very effective approach to treat and support victims of violence. Whether it is training activities and seminars to help women become economically independent or treatment and healing to help them recover from their trauma, there is a great need to support female victims of torture and ill-treatment. With so many women worldwide having experienced some form of violence, this response must equal the size of this global problem.
So far the 16 IRCT members have treated more than 3,000 women and 1,200 children subjected to torture and sexual violence. We are still to see how many small business owners or beauticians the events and seminars have fostered, but for many in Cameroon and Pakistan things are looking brighter.