Archive for November, 2012

Beyond survivors: A president’s story

While gender violence is a near universal problem, there are regional challenges to addressing it. Over the 16 Days, we shall share the stories of women across all regions of the world who have been victims of torture and sexual violence.

However, while they have been victims, the experience of torture does not define who they are. These women are survivors and more. Here we share the story of Dilma Rousseff, the current president of Brazil, who was tortured in her youth for being a member of the resistance movement during the dictatorship. 

Nearly two years ago, on 1 January 2011, Ms Dilma Rousseff opened her first official speech as Brazil’s first female president by saying that she would not use the opportunity to boast about her own life story.

However, most people would agree that her story, from enduring torture and prison during the country’s 21-year military dictatorship to taking the helm of Latin America’s largest nation, is remarkable.

More than 40 years ago, in January 1970, Dilma Rousseff was arrested in São Paulo due to her participation in the resistance movement against the dictatorship. She was taken to a prison kept by the Bandeirantes Operation (OBAN), an organisation created by the Brazilian Army to investigate members of the resistance. There, Dilma Rousseff, age 22, survived 22 days of intense torture. One of the few occasions on which she spoke about what she went through during her time in prison was in an interview with the Brazilian journalist Luiz Maklouf Carvalho two years ago.

“I was beaten a lot, suspended in the ‘parrot perch’, received many, many electric-shocks”, she told. “One day, I started to bleed, had bleeding that looked like a menstrual period and was taken to the Central Army’s Hospital. There I met a very young girl from the National Liberation Action (ed.: a leftist Brazilian guerrilla that stood against the military dictatorship) who advised me: “Jump for a while in your room to continue the bleeding and they will not take you back to OBAN”.

A more recent report that came out earlier this year detailed more incidents of torture, including a two-month stretch at a detention facility in Minas Gerais, during which the torture caused haemorrhaging of her uterus.

Dilma Rousseff was sentenced by a military court to six years in prison but was released after almost three years. When she left prison, she was 25 years old and had lost 10 kg in weight. When asked by the Brazilian journalist Luiz Maklouf Carvalho about how she felt after the time she spent in prison, Rousseff’s was brief: “No one leaves there without marks”.

She is convinced that “torture is one of the greatest evils that exist” and believes that “the deepest meaning of democracy necessarily includes putting an end to torture”.

Despite the many years that have passed, Ms Rousseff still thinks about the torture victims of the past and of the present. “Those scenes of the men imprisoned in Guantamano and Abu Ghraib cannot be justified. That is barbaric”, she said. She invited 11 women with whom she shared cells during the years she was imprisoned to her inauguration. Those who did not survive the dictatorship were also remembered in her speech: “Many of my generation fell on the march, and they cannot share the happiness of this moment. With them I share this achievement, and I pay them tribute”.

She received approximately 7,500 EUR in compensation for the torture during the dictatorship, which she pledged to donate to an anti-torture charity. Furthermore, under her leadership as president, Brazil has moved forward with a two-year Truth Commission, which began this past May, to investigate and reveal the crimes of the past. Although a 1979 amnesty that shields perpetrators from persecution for their crimes remains on the books, there has been much optimism that the commission will bring the crimes to light for the first time in a proper nationwide forum.


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Beyond survivors: women at the forefront to stop violence, stop torture

Yesterday marked the start of 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence, a global campaign to bring attention to the crimes of violence against women. The campaign begins every year on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, through to 10 December, UN Human Rights Day.

We at the IRCT have often raised the issue of torture against women, and we will do it again through the 16 Days of Activism campaign.

The women you will meet are more than simply victims.

These women are on the forefront of the fight against torture; they are the human rights defenders challenging the state in public protests and national advocacy. They are the activists sharing petitions and taking up the struggle to defend others. They are sharing their stories, standing forth and testifying against powerful state apparatuses. And they are being rehabilitated, joining other women in healing themselves and healing each other.

There are many ways to describe the bravery of these acts.

So, in the coming two weeks, we shall allow the women to describe it themselves. On, the floor is theirs. Please join us in this global challenge against gender violence and share these stories throughout the 16 Days.

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Voices from Bahrain: Persecuted doctors continue struggle with BRAVO

Dr Nabeel Hameed is a neurosurgeon, one of only three in the entire country of Bahrain. Yet Wednesday he was sentenced to three months in prison and $700 in fines for the conviction of “illegal gathering” — one of 23 health professionals convicted on these charges.

Dr Hameed was among the physicians, nurses and medical staff of Salamaniya Hospital arrested for treating anti-government protestors during the demonstrations at Pearl Roundabout in March 2011. Their charges included inciting sectarian hatred, promoting the overthrow of the government, harbouring weapons, illegally occupying the hospital, and theft of hospital equipment.

Dr Nabeel Hameed, a Bahraini neurosurgeon, has joined other persecuted doctors to start BRAVO, the Bahrain Rehabilitation and Anti-Violence Organization. Photo by Fabio Pereira.

During the brutal crackdown against the demonstrators, about 30 people were killed and hundreds injured, many of whom ended up in the largest hospital in the capital, Salamaniya.

On 15 March 2011, the Bahrain Defence Forces seized control of the hospital, eventually detaining and interrogating some 48 doctors, nurses, medics, ambulance drivers and other hospital staff. Many later came forth and reported that they were tortured while in detention – including Dr Hameed, who was arrested a month after the government seizure of the hospital and detained for about three months.

“We became automatic witnesses,” Hameed explained to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “That’s a problem. When we saw the protestors, straight away we became automatic witnesses. To take our credibility away, [they] accuse us of a crime.”

Hameed was accused of killing, rather than treating, a protester who had died at the hospital after his care. The interrogators claimed he had done so to tarnish the public image of Bahrain.

International human rights organisations, including the IRCT, Amnesty International and Physicians for Human Rights, as well as other groups such as the World Medical Association (WMA), condemned the arrest and detention of medical staff in Bahrain.

“While various criminal charges were brought it appears that the major offence was treating all the patients who presented for care, including leaders and members of the rebellion…” WMA wrote in their statement. The global organisation condemned the acts of the Bahraini government, saying it violated the hospital staff’s commitment to medical neutrality.

“If we help others, maybe we can also help ourselves”

The Bahrain Rehabilitation and Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO) emerged largely from the controversial targeting of doctors and medical staff. Four of the founders were physicians at Salmaniya medical centre.

“We started [BRAVO] out of a need,” he explains. “In some ways, we thought that if we can help others, maybe we can also help ourselves.”

Within a year of being established, BRAVO has already set up three programmes. They provide treatment for eye injuries, a devastatingly common occurrence now in Bahrain as buckshot is a common weapon used against protesters. Victims are, for example, given a glass eye and provided with therapy to train the remaining eye. They have also set up group therapy sessions for victims of sexual harassment and assault. Finally, they have a psychotherapy programme for the families of those imprisoned or tortured.

Hameed’s own family, he says, is doing as well as can be expected. His youngest son was born just a few months after his imprisonment. After being in Copenhagen for the last few days when we spoke, he was excited to get back to his “beautiful wife and kids.”

“But the children in Bahrain,” he says; “these days they’re playing with barricades instead of toy cars.”

There have been large, well-attended protests on the street in Bahrain, particularly in the capital Manama, since the start of the Arab Spring last year. But Bahrain hasn’t followed the narrative of Egypt or Tunisia; despite ongoing protests and a brutal crackdown in March of last year, there has been no change from the Al-Khalifa royal family rule.

In June of last year, the government commissioned an independent report on the allegations of human rights abuses in the country, called the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). The BICI report, released in November 2011, was applauded for its forthrightness and frank examination of the abuses in the country, including violent police abuses on the streets and torture within detention facilities. Since the report, some changes have occurred – for example, the trials against the doctors moved to a civilian court instead of a military one; but many have criticized the lack of proper reform.

However, Hameed sees the government actions since the report as “beautified, not as flagrant violations” in comparison with the brutal treatment of 2011.

The government, he says, would like Bahrain to be viewed internationally as the pinnacle of human rights in the Arab world. And they have taken actions, even within recent weeks, to drain the opposition movement.

Indeed, in the days after I spoke with Hameed, 31 Bahrainis – opposition activists who had organised public protests – were stripped of their citizenship for undermining “state security”. Just a few days prior, the government banned public demonstrations, with the Interior Minister saying that “repeated abuse” of the rights to freedom of speech and expression could no longer be accepted.

It’s been the constant attacks and judicial harassment for his public speech that seems to have kept Hameed consistently aggrieved during this process. He stands firm on his right to freedom of expression. Despite the arrest, the torture, the ongoing court cases and the persistent threat of more, he’s defiant, not hostile, but decidedly non-compliant. He will continue to speak against the human rights abuses in Bahrain.

“I don’t mind them personally calling me a criminal. But not a traitor.”

Facing this most recent conviction, it is unknown whether Hameed will lose his license to practice medicine. For the time being though, there is some relief that at least he will not have to go to jail again – he has already served three months and will therefore not have to return. However, the fact that the judge in this case refused to hear any claims of torture from the medics, reflects much of the most recent criticism of Bahrain – that one year after the BICI report, few reforms have taken root.

Tessa is Communications Officer at IRCT.

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Say no to torture – in Portuguese

While working on the 26 June Global Report, in particular on the list of States which have and have not ratified the UN Convention against Torture, I noticed something peculiar.

From the short list of States which have not ratified the Convention — of which many are microstates — three of them are members of the Portuguese-speaking community of countries, namely Angola, Guinea-Bissau and São Tomé and Príncipe.

I am Portuguese and I am from a generation of young people who want to completely break away from the hostilities that marked this group of countries in the 60s and 70s.

This generation dreams of a true community of Lusophone countries that uses the shared heritage as a tool to advance human development and cultural enrichment.

Disregard for basic human rights does not and cannot be part of this new Lusophone community, the home of nearly 250 million people, where more than a million people already exchanged their country for another in the community.

That is why I decided to write an open letter to the leaders of the CPLP (in Portuguese only), the Lusophone equivalent to the Commonwealth or the Francophonie, calling for concerted efforts towards the ratification of the Convention by the three remaining countries, so that the whole community can adhere together to the cause for a world without torture.

Join the call. Sign the petition.


Fabio is a Communications Officer and Assistant Editor of Torture Journal at IRCT.

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Zimbabwe: Drop charges against CSU 3

Fidelis Mudimu, a newly elected Council Member at the IRCT, is among the three staff members of Counselling Services Unit who were arrested and illegally detained.

Dear supporters,
As we wrote recently, three staff members, including IRCT’s Council Member Mr Fidelis Mudimu, were arbitrarily arrested and detained by police in Harare. They were transferred to Bulawayo, 450 kilometres southwest of the capital, where fears grew over their safety.

Thanksfully, the three were released on bail the following day. However, now Mr Mudimu and colleagues Zachariah Godi and Tafadzwa Geza are facing specious charges. And, the computer that was confiscated during the police raid on the clinic has not yet been returned.

We ask our global group of supporters to please join in demanding these charges be dropped and the computer returned. Visit our petition, sign on to this call, and please, most importantly, share it with your friends and family to end the harassment of our colleagues in Zimbabwe.

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Voices from our members: Mexican human rights defenders reports to UN Committee

Editor’s Note: The following is a blog post submission from our member centre in Mexico, Colectivo Contra la Tortura y la Impunidad (CCTI) (in English, the Collective Against Torture and Impunity). In the beginning of November, Mexico faced a review of their compliance with the UN Convention against Torture. During this process, CCTI with the IRCT and other Mexican and international organisations in providing their own reports on the situation of torture in Mexico. Here is a blog on their own experience in this process.  Abajo, en español

The UN Committee against Torture heard from IRCT Mexican member CCTI on serious issues hampering the struggle against impunity for torturers and justice for the victims.

On 31 October and 1 November, the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) examined the Mexican state. This revision happened just before the departure of the current President Felipe Calderón, during whose administration it was reported a dramatic increase of human rights violations, including torture, forced disappearances as well as attacks against human rights defenders and journalists.

The Colectivo Contra la Tortura y la Impunidad (CCTI) participated in the elaboration of an alternative report about the situation of torture in Mexico and submitted another report, together with the IRCT, about the implementation of the Istanbul Protocol [PDF]. In both reports, the importance of the effectiveness and independence of torture investigations, including medico-psychological documentation, was underlined. The fight against impunity represents a fundamental aspect in the prevention of torture. However, Mexico is characterised by the total impunity for perpetrators, leaving the victims in a situation of double vulnerability.

In the examination, the CAT members questioned the state about the lack of investigation and sanctions against the offenders. Additionally, they highlighted the issues of arraigo detention, military law, the Istanbul Protocol and the situation of human rights defenders, migrants and women.

As expected, the state denied the inefficacy of its actions, offered partial and incomplete information and avoided several questions. The state presented itself as a promoter of human rights and justified arraigo detention, the opening of more high security prisons and the involvement of the military in public security matters.

The human rights organisations at the examination had the opportunity to meet with the Committee and raise their concerns. They were heard and their recommendations were taken in consideration in what concerns questioning the report by the Mexican state. CCTI, as well the other organisations present at the examination, hope that the recommendations by the Committee are compelling and detailed and help the work of exposing and fighting torture in Mexico.



Los días 31 de octubre y 1 de noviembre el Estado mexicano fue examinado ante el Comité Contra la Tortura (CAT) de la ONU. Esta revisión se dio poco antes de la salida del actual presidente Felipe Calderón en cuya administración se ha reportado un aumento dramático de violaciones a los Derechos Humanos, incluyendo la tortura, la desaparición forzada y agresiones contra defensores y periodistas.

EL Colectivo Contra la Tortura y la Impunidad (CCTI) participó en la elaboración de un informe alternativo acerca de la situación de tortura en México y entregó otro informe sobre la implementación del Protocolo de Estambul conjuntamente con el IRCT [PDF]. En ambos se destaca la importancia de la eficacia e independencia de las investigaciones por tortura, incluyendo la documentación médico-psicológica. La lucha contra la impunidad  representa un aspecto fundamental en la prevención de la tortura. México se caracteriza por la total impunidad para los perpetradores, lo que deja a las víctimas en una situación de doble vulnerabilidad.

En la revisión los miembros del CAT cuestionaron al estado acerca de la falta de investigaciones y sanciones en contra de los agresores. Además destacaron los temas de arraigo, el fuero militar, el Protocolo de Estambul, la situación de los defensores, migrantes y mujeres.

Como era de esperar, el estado negó la ineficacia de sus acciones, proporcionó información parcial e incompleta o evitó contestar varias preguntas. Se presentó como promotor de derechos humanos, sin embargo justificó la figura del arraigo, la creación de más cárceles de alta seguridad y la participación de militares en tareas de seguridad pública.

Las organizaciones de derechos humanos que asistieron a la revisión tuvieron la posibilidad de reunirse con el CAT y plantear sus preocupaciones. Fueron escuchados y sus recomendaciones fueron tomados en cuenta al cuestionar el informe del estado mexicano. El CCTI así como las demás organizaciones esperamos que las recomendaciones del CAT sean contundentes, precisas y ayuden en su labor de denunciar y combatir la tortura en México.

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Defenders at risk: Fears grow for illegally detained staff in Zimbabwe

Fidelis Mudimu, a newly elected Council Member at the IRCT, is among the three staff members of Counselling Services Unit who remain illegally detained. Mudimo has been working in the field of medical and psychological treatment to victims of trauma  and organised violence in Zimbabwe for 12 years.


As a global movement, the IRCT’s member centres aren’t only based within the world’s relatively safe, stable and prosperous countries.   Many are based in countries where the rule of law is weak.  These are, of course, often the countries where torture is rampant and the need for rehabilitation great.

The work done by brave men and women in such situations – the healing they carry out – is often not without personal risk.

Just this week IRCT member Counselling Services Unit in Harare, Zimbabwe found itself raided by 12 uniformed and non-uniformed police officers.  The clinic was surrounded by armed riot police who threatened to fire tear gas into the building, which is also occupied by other tenants. Patients awaiting services were left unattended for four hours while the police demanded and forcibly seized confidential medical records. And five staff members were arrested.

The police came with a search warrant limited to “material likely to deface any house, building, wall, fence, lamp post, gate or elevator without the consent of the owner or occupier thereof.”

CSU tell me that they must adhere to Environmental Compliance requirements for health facilities, following the guidelines issued by the Zimbabwe Ministry of Health. The guidelines require separation of cleaning materials for areas of ablution and areas of food storage and preparation. The cleaning utensils are clearly marked using spray paint, and the paint is stored on the premises in the work area of the janitor. It is not hidden or stored secretively and was purchased in July 2012. CSU have handed the receipts of purchase of three 250ml cans of spray paint from the local hardware store to the police. The police fixated on the finding of this paint and refused to listen to any explanation.

In spite of having a warrant limited to “material likely to deface” the police arrived with an IT expert and left with a computer – a computer for which they had no warrant to take and which contains confidential data on patients of the clinic.

It doesn’t get much lower than that: stealing the records of people who are undergoing treatment to recover from trauma is just despicable.

CSU and the IRCT are deeply worried about the lost data.

Moreover, both CSU and the IRCT are very concerned for the safety of three CSU staff – one of whom – Fidelis Mudimu – was recently elected to the Council of the IRCT. The three staff are still in illegal detention following Monday’s raid – two were released that same day. We just heard today that the three have been moved nearly 500km from Harare to detention facilities in the city of Bulawayo. The removal of the three staff to another location and the further detention order with no defined charges or substantive evidence of illegal activities constitutes serious and illegal harassment.

The IRCT is calling for their immediate release and an end to the harassment of its member centre.  It also requests that civil society and the wider international community join in its calls.

Bringing light to their stories is an effective way to help human rights defenders. Please read this update about them and join us in advocating for their release by sharing in your networks to bring international attention to the plight of these courageous human rights defenders — who risk their freedom everyday to help others.

Update: We have just received word from a colleague at CSU that the three were granted bail and remanded out of custody until 6 December 2012.

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Voices from Latin America – strategies for safety

Editor’s Note: In her first piece Line explained some of the challenges facing the torture rehabilitation movement in Latin America that she heard about at the IRCT Regional Seminar.  Here she explains how the regional gathering helped those staff address the issues.

So how can a meeting help ameliorate the growing security concerns for human rights defenders in Latin America?

Through presentations, workshops and discussions, the professionals at the IRCT Regional Seminar in Mexico City were able to share their knowledge, experiences and challenges. Through this, they — the doctors, psychosocial counsellors, and lawyers in the fight against torture — learned from each other, discussed the challenges to their work and, thus, developed new strategies to avoid risk.

As such, a specific goal of one workshop was to develop security plans at national and regional levels.

One strategy discussed was to improve the communication amongst the rehabilitation centres in the region to quickly enable mobilisation and reaction in response to urgent security developments.

Plans were also set forth for day-to-day measures to be taken when working in fragile security situations. These included security measures at work, in the home, when travelling, and in the event of detention by state authorities. Among examples of these daily precautions were: changing the hours of arriving and leaving work; not providing sensitive information over the phone; trying to position desktops away from windows and never participating in public demonstrations alone. And, in the event of a threat or attack: making sure to have extra clothes, keys and money in another place; memorising telephone numbers to ask for help from trusted persons; knowing of possible safe spaces to go, such as a church, a public place or a hostel.

Many of the participants have lived through internal armed conflicts and dictatorships; some are torture survivors themselves.  They are not strangers to risk.

In addition to developing security plans, the meeting provided a space for sharing ideas on self-care for trauma and anti-torture professionals, sharing best practices on documenting and treating the effects of torture. Above all, the meeting provided a forum in which support and solidarity were exchanged.

After three intense days, the seminar ended with a final discussion and evaluation; there was much more to talk about and many challenges ahead, but the spirit, the humour and a firm decision to continue the crucial work in the fight against torture seemed intact and strengthened.

Line is a Project Coordinator, focusing on the Latin American partners and the NSA projectThe regional seminar was funded by the European Commission.

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