Archive for February, 2012

Seven films on torture

As the Academy Awards aired this Sunday night, we thought we would look back at some of the films that have addressed torture. Some of these are documentaries – films that uncover some of the most famous examples of state torture, such as Abu Ghraib; others are feature films that provide a cinematic example of what does happen in real life; others are historical dramas. All address torture – what it looks like, what it does to people, or its long-lasting impact on victims’ lives.

Taxi to the Dark Side

Taxi to the Dark Side won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary. It examines the U.S. policy of torture interrogation and their defense of it, while focusing on the specific torture and killing of Dilawar, an Afghanistan taxi driver, who was beaten to death at Bagram Air Base in 2002.

The Secret Life of Words

This feature film, by Spanish director Isabel Coixet and featuring Tim Robbins and Sarah Polley, follows a Yugoslavian woman (Hanna) who travels to an offshore oil rig during her holiday to care for a rig worker (Robbins), who was temporarily blinded and injured in a terrible accident. Their care becomes mutual as they slowly open up and share their old scars, especially for Hanna. The film also features a characterization of Inge Genefke, IRCT founder, who is Hanna’s counselor.

The Killing Fields

The Killing Fields from 1984 follows two journalists – one from the U.S. and one Cambodian – who attempt to cover the story of Pol Pot’s regime and the torture camps that claimed more than 2 million lives. Many leaders of the Khmer Rouge are now on trial for crimes against humanity, torture, and killings; the first of which – Duch – has been sentenced.


Ghosts, a 2010 documentary, is about the case of three Canadian men who were detained and tortured in Egypt and Syria. The film follows the men for a year and a half, after their return to Canada, during which they try to find out why this happened to them through a closed-door government inquiry. When the inquiry results were made public in 2008, it was found that government agencies had been complicit in their detention and torture.

Slumdog Millionaire

IRCT Secretary-General Brita Sydhoff mentioned this film in our 2009 Annual Report as it was pulling in all the big international film awards. She had met a ‘real-life’ Jamal, the ‘slumdog’ who made millions in the film, during a mission to India: Amit had been torture for three days by police, who “beat him up, then hung him from the ceiling, head down, and hit the soles of his feet with metal rods,” she wrote. This film, while overall very uplifting, features some highly disturbing scenes of both poverty, and torture in an Indian police station.

Standard Operating Procedure

This documentary – another addressing the torture interrogation of the U.S. military – discusses the abuses and famous photos from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Lead under the skillful hand of famed documentary director Errol Morris, Standard Operating Procedure looks at those infamous photos through the eyes of those who took them – the military officers at Abu Ghraib, the perpetrators of torture and humiliation.

Cry Freedom

This 1980s feature film, with Denzel Washington as Steve Biko and Kevin Kline as Donald Woods, follows the relationship between the black consciousness activist and the white newspaper editor during apartheid South Africa. Biko, an outspoken activist against the racist policies of his country, is arrested one night by police and dies in custody. Woods writes about the man and investigates the torture and extrajudicial killing in custody, before having to smuggle his book and his family out of the country.

What other films do you know that address torture? Please share them in the comments.


, , , , , , , , , ,


Freedom from torture: a right for all

Abu Qatada case shows how principles of human rights and freedom from torture extend to all – even the despised

The British press have been quite excitable in their coverage of Abu Qatada’s deportation case recently.

The 51-year-old preacher has been excused of providing religious backing to terrorism, including the September 11 attacks on the U.S.; others allege he has been closely connected with the Al Qaeda terror network.

He has lived in the UK since 1993, when he entered on a fraudulent passport. And many seem to want him out.

As such, for the last 10 years, the British government has been trying to deport Qatada to Jordan, where he stands accused in military trials of assisting in terrorism attacks.

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Qatada cannot be deported to Jordan because of the risk he may be tortured and that evidence from torture may be used in his trial there.

And while many British newspapers have focused on the issue of torture – and many more on the millions of pounds it has cost the UK to monitor, detain, and process Qatada – the principles of ‘non-refoulement’ at the basis of the Courts decision remain hazy amidst the outcry.

Non-refoulement is proscribed in the UN Convention against Torture – which both the UK and Jordan have ratified.   Basically, it means that a country may not deport a person to a country: where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.

While the Prince of Jordan has made public assertions that it is “illogical” to believe Qatada would be tortured if deported to Jordan, the European Court is not of the same opinion.

Atlas of Torture, a project of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights in Vienna, provides profiles of countries human rights and torture records based on reports from UN Special Rapporteurs, the UN Committee against Torture, and the Sub-committee for the Prevention of Torture. Of Jordan, they state that: “It was alleged that torture was commonly practised to extract confessions or to obtain intelligence between the time of arrest and transfer to pre-trial detention… The Special Rapporteur thus concluded that the practice of torture was widespread in Jordan and that torture was routinely used…”

To circumvent its obligations as regards non-refoulment, the UK Home Office has sought assurances from Jordan that Qatada will not be tortured, a naïve undertaking at best. Some members of parliament have gone so far as to suggest that the UK should simply temporarily withdraw from the human rights treaty to thus continue with the deportation.

These are all outrageous suggestions. The UK has deported Tamils and Congolese to their home countries when there was evidence they would be tortured, when nearly at the same moment, during the announcement of the Detainee Inquiry, Prime Minister David Cameron stated, “Our reputation as a country that believes in human rights, fairness and the rule of law – indeed for much of what the services exist to protect – risks being tarnished.”

The rule of law, the UN Convention against Torture, is not something one can simply ignore – or withdraw from – temporarily.

  Tessa is communications assistant at the IRCT

, , , , , , ,

1 Comment

“What you really need is justice”

Justice and documentation a key strategy to prevent torture

It was a great privilege to attend the recent conference, “Forensic Evidence in the Fight against Torture” in Washington, DC, co-hosted by the IRCT and the American University Washington College of Law.

The conference marked the conclusion of the IRCT’s latest European Commission-funded project on promoting the use of forensic documentation of torture, and brought together a highly distinguished collection of experts in the field from all over the world.

There were too many powerful and informative presentations and debates to list here, but one that stands out for me was the presentation from torture survivor Carlos R Mauricio. Mr. Mauricio spoke movingly of his experience, and explained that while “’therapy can help you understand why you feel so bad, what you really need is justice.” He won his legal case against the perpetrators of his torture in El Salvador.

We also heard Mostafa Hussein explain how the International Forensic Experts Group, established by the IRCT in collaboration with the University of Copenhagen, were able to provide expert testimony in the iconic Khaled Said case, which forms the central part of a film the IRCT has made about its work in the documentation of torture.

I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to directly interview many of the speakers and panelists at the event, including UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Professor Juan Mendez, himself a torture survivor who has recently described his experiences in a most thought provoking book.  Professor Mendez told me that:

Documentation is essential to survivors of torture because the obligations of the state with regards to torture are manifold, but, each one of them depends on being able to document and prove that torture has happened.  Unfortunately, torturers know of the difficulty in proving torture and, therefore, find ways of avoiding accountability.

The first and foremost obligation under the Convention against Torture is to investigate, prosecute and punish every single act of torture, but States get away from their obligation by saying torture is not proven.  The second one, a very important one as well, is to exclude evidence obtained under torture, and the same thing happens. The person who has signed the confession comes before a magistrate or a judge and says ‘I’ve been tortured’, but, because there is no overwhelming physical evidence of torture the allegation is dismissed, and the evidence that has been coerced is admitted into court, in violation of the convention.

It is the same with remedies, reparations and rehabilitation.

Therefore, the use and understanding of thorough medico-legal documentation of torture is crucial in securing and end to impunity for torturers, the prevention of torture and redress for its victims.

It’s why, even though this particular EC-funded project is coming to a close, the IRCT will continue to develop its role as a key global hub on medico-legal documentation of torture based upon the Istanbul Protocol (PDF).

Scott heads the Communications Team at the IRCT. See @withouttorture for livetweets and photos from the event.

, , ,


Conference to enhance the use of forensic evidence to expose torture

Today is the first day of our conference in Washington, D.C. on  the use of forensic evidence in the fight against torture. Speakers will include current UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez; Claudio Grossman, the chair of the UN Committee against Torture; and other legal and medical experts on torture and documentation from around the world.

To follow the conference, you can watch the webcast from our partners the American University Washington College of Law (Wednesday and Thursday) or follow us on Twitter, where we will use the event hashtag #ExposeTorture.

Here is the full agenda of the event.

, , , , , ,

1 Comment

After the cloud of tear gas

Focus on Bahrain needed to prevent more human rights violations

Today, as the protesters have made their way from the suburbs of Manama, Bahrain, undoubtedly heading to Pearl roundabout, the security forces quickly made it known – through their sheer presence, the eventual dispersal of tear gas – that they would try to stem the tide of demonstrators at the infamous site. And in the days leading up, the government has continued crackdown and suppression efforts, denying foreigners and foreign press access to Bahrain and hiring public relations firms.

Today marks a year since protesters gathered at Pearl roundabout in Manama, demonstrating against the undemocratic monarchy of Bahrain and calling for reform. Yet, unlike other Arab Spring movements, Bahrain’s demonstrators have often been ‘shouting in the dark’, to employ the title of an Al Jazeera English documentary that chronicled the protests and the resulting crackdown.

Instead of democratic reforms, Bahrainis have faced severe repression, torture, and arbitrary detention. Just last week, Bahrain and Danish citizen and human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja wrote a letter to the Danish Foreign Ministry from prison calling for them to push for his release:

Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja’s letter to the Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs from prison, 8 Feb 2012

In it, he points to an official 500-page government inquiry in Bahrain that documented cases of torture. In addition, there was the highly publicized cases of over a dozen doctors, surgeons, and nurses at a Manama hospital who were sentenced to several years in prison after being tortured to confess. Their alleged ‘crime’: Doing their job as doctors and treating the wounded and dying protesters coming from Pearl roundabout after security forces cracked down.

All these cases, and yet it seems the torture continues in Bahrain. Within the last year, demonstrators have continued to take to the streets; and many are apprehended, detained, and torture by security forces. We hope on this anniversary that the international world focuses on Bahrain.

“What Bahrainis need is international pressure, international attention to stop the torture, stop the human rights violations; then, we can fight for democracy ourselves,” said Maryam Al-Khawaja, daugher of Abdulhadi and current foreign affairs officer from the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, during a panel discussion last year.

, , , , ,

Leave a comment

Calling on Egypt to do more

Injured demonstrators are taken to field hospitals in Tahrir Square, which have currently sustained targeted attacks against patients and doctors. Photo by Jano Charbel, available by Creative Commons License.

Following a series of recent violent crackdowns against demonstrators in Egypt (most strikingly following deaths at a football match in Port Said), we have a released a statement on our website calling for Egypt to immediately stop inflicting violence and torture and to implement a thorough investigation into the perpetrators:

The IRCT today calls for the Egyptian General Attorney to implement a prompt and thorough investigation into dozens of cases of torture and ill-treatment in Egypt that have occurred since the November 2011 crackdown on demonstrators.

We join a coalition of lawyers and human rights defenders, including IRCT Egyptian member El Nadeem Centre for Management and Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, in seeking an end to the recent violence and torture and a comprehensive inquiry into these violations. In addition, we echo the demand for accountability of security forces in connection to the massacre of football fans in Port Said last Wednesday.

Furthermore, the IRCT also condemns the targeted attacks – including arbitrary arrests, beatings, and shootings – on field hospitals constructed in Tahrir Square. The field hospitals, which were constructed to treat those wounded in the protests, have sustained several attacks on both doctors and patients.

Read our full statement here. And read more about our member centre El Nadeem, who is leading the call.

, , , , , ,

Leave a comment

In Haiti – and U.S. – impunity must end

Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc' Duvalier was president of Haiti from 1971-1986, during which thousands of Haitians were brutally tortured, killed, or 'disappeared' during his 15-year regime. Photo under Creative Commons license, by a-birdie.

“Moving forward” and “learning lessons” cannot be done without holding perpetrators of torture to account

After 25 years in exile, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the former ‘president for life’ responsible for the deaths of over 30,000 Haitians, returned to his country and was promptly put on trial.

However, much to the likely devastation of the survivors of his torturous regime and the families of victims killed during his term, he has only been charged with corruption and embezzlement. There are to be no charges for the torture, extrajudicial killings, and ‘disappearances’ that the victims of his crimes deserve to see him held accountable for.

And both expectantly and deservedly, the condemnations of the Haitian decision have come flooding in. From the Washington Post Editorial Board to the UN High Commission for Human Rights, the magistrate responsible for the decision has been unanimously vilified for allowing Duvalier impunity for his most heinous crimes and human rights violations. I agree that Duvalier should be held accountable and that this recent decision was rightfully worthy of condemnation.

However, a common from Haiti’s current president caught my attention: Asked about the Duvalier case, President Martelly told The Washington Post: “It is part of the past. We need to learn our lessons and move forward.”

President Martelly’s language is markedly similar to another leader a little to the north of the island nation. The current U.S. administration has refused to pursue an investigation or charges against top Bush Administration officials for allegations of torture committed during the so-called ‘war on terror’, with Obama saying in a statement that it is a “time for reflection, not retribution”. These crimes too have been swept under the carpet, despite international obligations to properly investigate and hold perpetrators to account.

Yet both Duvalier and U.S. government officials need to be held to account for their crimes. Sweeping the responsibility for these crimes under the rug not only fails the state’s obligations to the survivors and victims’ families; it perpetuates a cycle of impunity, and gives a free rein for torturers to continue.

  Tessa is a communications assistant at the IRCT.

, , , , , , , , ,


Child soldiers, child survivors of torture

Globally, there are an estimated 300,000 child soldiers; as many as 60% are tortured during their conscription. Please share to make sure these crimes are known.

, , , ,

Leave a comment