Archive for category Latin America & the Caribbean
In our Fighting Torture series, we speak with people from around the world and from a number of professions who work with and support survivors of torture. What does their work mean to them and what are the biggest challenges they see in the anti-torture and rehabilitation movement?
Alba Mejia is the Assistant Director of the Centre for Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims and their Families (CPTRT), in Honduras, a member of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims. She tells us how securing funding for the sector continues to be a challenge and how the Honduran military, which runs the country’s prison service, is more focused on punishment and vigilance, rather than rehabilitation.
Q: What is your profession and where do you work?
I am a social worker, and hold a master’s degree. I am currently working at CPTRT where many of our clients are in detention, deprived of liberty.
Q: How long have you worked in torture rehabilitation and human rights?
I have worked with torture victims since 1995, which is the same year that CPTRT was founded.
Q: How did you end up doing this work?
This work is the culmination of activities I have been involved in throughout my life as a human rights defender. When I was young, I participated intensively in the fight for the rights of workers in the health and education sectors. I also worked in the defence of higher education students, where I observed how groups of young people were tortured when they were forcibly recruited into the military. That is why I got involved in the movement that fought to make military service voluntary rather than obligatory.
In addition, all my social engagement has been related to the prevention of violence against women and I actually founded the movement, “Women for peace/Visitación Padilla’, which I was involved in for 15 years. As part of my work with CPTRT, I have been in contact with people deprived of liberty and I have seen the consequences of torture on the bodies of victims. This is why I now feel committed to defending their rights.
Q: Can you give us an example of how you have seen your work make a difference?
Sometimes I run into people who have been deprived of liberty who I have interacted with during different workshops. When they see me they stop and greet me, they remind me of the experiences they have gone through and how the CPTRT’s support has positively affected their lives.
Q: How has this work changed you since you started?
This work has strengthened my convictions about the need to deeply engage in changing national and international structures, which are the cause of the exploitation, oppression and repression of those impoverished in the world.
Q: Tell us about the situation for torture survivors in Honduras?
At CPTRT, we refer to the people we work with as being ‘deprived of liberty’. Their situation is critical and they do not enjoy the full right to rehabilitation. Lack of access to education, health care and employment are also serious problems. These issues are further exacerbated due to overcrowded living conditions in prisons and detention centres. All of this constitutes cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, which is very close to torture.
Q: What is a typical day in the office/field for you?
In my management position, I regularly meet with my colleagues to co-ordinate meetings with state operators so we can maintain institutional communication with other organisations to handle and define strategies for dealing with torture cases.
Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the torture rehabilitation sector in Honduras?
The biggest obstacle is that unfortunately the government has delegated the administration of the penitentiary system to the military. If the possibilities for rehabilitation before were minimal, now they have been reduced even more because the military focuses on punishment and vigilance, rather than rehabilitation.
Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the torture rehabilitation sector in general?
Globally, there is not enough funding for the rehabilitation of victims. This is then reinforced by the limited influence that can be exerted to ensure that states make funding available for the rehabilitation of torture survivors.
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 some even think that it is necessary. What would you say to them?
Torture is an experience that stays with the survivors for their entire life. Regardless of how much therapy they receive, their brain will always remember the suffering and the horror of such a traumatic experience. Torture affects the behaviour of survivors and often does not allow them to be happy because they have to deal with many fears that stay with them for their entire lives.
Q: And finally, many of us do care about torture survivors and victims. How can we support the anti-torture/torture rehabilitation movement?
By example. We should try to be defenders of human rights, both in the office and outside the office. Wherever there is injustice, we need to fight it and turn it into a positive change.
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.
Despite great progress in the security over the past decades in Colombia, the use of torture is still systematic in the country.
In this blog, journalist and guest blogger Hannah Matthews, who lives in the Colombian capital Bogota, gives her view on the prevalence of torture and what attention needs to be given to the situation now to stop torture.
An almost invisible crime in the country, masked by the prevalence of extrajudicial killings and forced displacement, the issue of torture in Colombia deserves immediate international scrutiny.
It’s been one year since I moved to Bogota and, despite not witnessing torture first hand, I have encountered many human rights defenders who have spent time in prison under false charges of criminal or dissident activity.
Beyond the human rights field, social protest is criminalised at any available opportunity. Despite the peaceful nature of protests, tear gas canisters are frequently fired into the crowd and riot police adopt aggressive stances, igniting an otherwise peaceful demonstration.
Unfortunately my observations only support those made by the Colombian Coalition Against Torture, who outline how torture is used as a means of political persecution with the purpose of forcefully obtaining confessions or information, an discriminatory instrument of repression against social protest, or simply as a way to plant fear within Colombian society to prevent dissent against the authorities.
But the Colombian context is infinitely more complex than that. With so many different state and non-state actors in the mix, all torturing with different aims and purpose, complicated dynamics further convolute victims’ access to justice. The simple dichotomy between government and guerrilla groups, right and left, good and bad, that the international community continues to propagate is too simple and runs the risk of masking important issues and human rights violations that occur across the spectrum.
Due to the widespread fear and high risk associated with denouncing cases of torture, impunity reigns with very few cases ever being fully investigated or tried. Human rights defenders and other entities who speak out against the government are under constant threat of persecution and mistreatment, as are those who express their dissent through peaceful protest. The most recent and shocking examples of this could be seen in the police treatment of farmers and students marching in the agrarian strikes of this year and 2013. In 2013 at least 800 protesters were badly injured by the public security forces and 15 people were killed. Last year over 3,000 people were arrested during social protests.
Despite the ratification of the various human rights treaties, including the Convention Against Torture (UNCAT) and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, rights to freedom of expression and freedom from torture are not respected, protected or fulfilled in Colombia. Colombia has still not ratified or applied the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT).
“Torture continues to be generalised and systematic in Colombia. It is perpetrated by the Public Force, by the paramilitaries and by the guerrillas, but the party principally responsible for these acts is the state,” said Isabelle Heyer, a member of the Colombian Jurists Commission.
This coalition has recorded instances of torture over the years in Colombia and has concluded that while the majority of cases continue to be committed by security forces, right wing militias and demobilized paramilitary groups are also at the heart of many incidences. Over 90% of the incidences of torture the coalition recorded between 2001 and 2009 were attributed to Colombian state forces, with less than 10% attributed to rebel guerrilla forces.
Current President Juan Manuel Santos has promised this year will see the signing of a historic peace agreement between the government and the most notorious guerrilla group, the FARC (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces). There is hope that this will establish a reconciliation process, but the country waits with baited breath. This process, if established, will be the tip of a huge iceberg in terms of restoring true justice and human rights principles, something very much needed for this war-torn country.
According to the Colombian Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Science, 1,913 people presented signs of mistreatment between 2010 and 2014, 345 of which were women. Torture and inhuman and degrading treatment remain most common amongst the Colombian prison population.
Sexual violence against women and girls is one of the most pervasive modes of torture, with Ms. Heyer from the Colombian Jurists Commission calling it “an habitual, systematic and invisible practice, which enjoys impunity in the majority of cases and whose principal perpetrators are soldiers and police.”
Among the prison population, organisations have expressed their concern about the high levels of psychological torture within prisons, with some inmates experiencing a serious lack of access to fresh running water, sufficient hygiene facilities and medical attention, as well as being subjected to verbal abuse and mistreatment from the prison guards.
All of this torture and ill-treatment though is no recent phenomena. Forty years of internal conflict, coupled with the state’s misuse of power and crackdowns on social and political opposition, means torture in Colombia remains a pertinent issue indeed. Improvements are scarce and unprogressive and any real access to justice or rehabilitation has not been assured.
Yet much of the world goes on regardless. Perhaps Colombia is too far removed from the lives of others, or simply too unknown. But it cannot go on like this forever. More needs to be done to end torture in the country. Today.
To find out more about what the IRCT is doing in Colombia through member CAPS, click this link.
Through more than 140 rehabilitation centres across the globe, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) is the largest international network against torture, providing rehabilitation, justice and hope to victims of torture all over the world.
Although under the same umbrella, each of these organisations is unique and operates in a variety of contexts. There are centres working around the clock to deal with humanitarian crises – such as Restart in Lebanon, or the Institute for Family Health in Jordan, which are currently struggling to respond to the challenging influx of Syrian refugees, many of them victims of torture, and groups working with the victims of long past dictatorships, such as those of Latin America in in 1970s.
There are also centres focused on healing entire communities through group therapy and counselling in places where armed conflict created deep societal wounds, and centres who are working with victims of terrible, and often covered-up, state torture, in countries usually assumed democratic and free from torture.
The range of focus areas is vast and, to counter this, so are the different methods of rehabilitation: there are traditional methods of rehabilitation, from psychotherapy and counselling, to group projects focused on rebuilding a community; there are innovative programmes such as yoga sessions which offer physical solutions to long-term pain; storytelling classes and artistic events across centres allow survivors of torture to express their pain in a personal and enlightening way; and projects such as the natural growth project, run by Freedom From Torture, which allow survivors of torture to find their place in the world by reconnecting them with nature and society.
Despite the differences, these organisations share an aim: to create a world without torture.
Over the coming weeks we will be focusing on particular torture rehabilitation centres from across the globe, giving an insight into how they operate and the work they complete on a daily basis.
Every week we shall turn our attention to a different centre and showcase how the centres and programmes work within varying national and local contexts, with different target groups, and use a range of methods to address the effects of torture on individuals, families and communities.
Torture has far-reaching consequences. Rehabilitation too has a far-reaching impact, one which can assist a person, a family, a community, and even a region, in moving on from their past and into a pain-free life once more.
Join us from next week as we go behind-the-scenes of the centres.
This month has seen us fighting torture in the dental chair, calling for prompt investigations of torture in Ukraine, and welcoming a new member centre to the IRCT.
Below are a selection of the most popular stories from World Without Torture over the past month. Simply click the pictures and links to read the relevant piece.
Odontology and documenting torture
The most popular post this month focused on the increasingly sophisticated methods of torture exercised today, notably those which aim to go undetected by torturing the teeth of a victim.
But for the past 20 years, odontologists at the University of Copenhagen have been documenting the cases of torture they have seen so there is a better understanding of the increasing number of torture methods which aim to be impossible to identify.
Torture – coming to a cinema near you
With documentary The Act of Killing receiving an Oscar nomination – and fellow torture network Freedom From Torture discussing latest torture-themed film The Railway Man in the Guardian newspaper – we looked at just how realistic torture is being portrayed by the film industry today.
IRCT calls for investigations into reports of torture in Ukraine
As the anti-government protests in Ukraine continue, so do reports of state torture against protestors in the capital of Kiev.
With the help of a local newspaper in Kiev, the IRCT issued a statement calling for thorough and proper investigations into the torture claims. The IRCT continues to monitor the situation as it develops.
Calls to protect IRCT members in Bolivia and Mexico
Further calls of safety and investigation came from the IRCT this month to ensure the safety of staff across two centres in Bolivia and Mexico.
The Institute for Research and Therapy of Torture Sequels and State Violence (ITEI) in Bolivia reported a series of intimidating phone calls and death threats which have been present for almost three months now, and are calling on state officials to assue the necessary safety of human rights defenders at the centre – particularly in light of the robbery of the centre director (read more here).
In a similar vein, there have been concerns from IRCT member Colectivo contra la Tortura y la Impunidad (CCTI) that their staff are being defamed and targeted by the state. The IRCT called for the safety of the centre and for the necessary prosecution of those responsible for the alleged intimidation.
Working alongside the media to end torture
Another extremely popular blog this month came as an accompaniment to the publication of the stories of two torture survivors in Al Jazeera English (iPad edition). The stories of Damchoe and ‘AK’ – from Tibet and Armenia, respectively – explore two entirely different reasons for torture in two contrasting locations, but both stories follow their incredible path to recovery even in the face of extreme adversity.
Thanks once more to Al Jazeera English for working with us. If you have an iPad, you can download the magazine by clicking this link.
Helping Syrian refugees in Jordan
The conflict in Syria has created a huge refugee crisis, with almost 2.5 million refugees pouring into neighbouring countries. Jordan has accepted the bulk of the refugees – over 800,000 of them – and IRCT member Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) has been documenting the healing processes of these refugees from their branch inside Jordan.
However there have been some positive developments over the refugee crisis, notably the UK’s decision to accept Syrian refugees as soon as possible.
New IRCT member welcomed
The IRCT welcomed new member the Kirkuk Centre for Torture Victimsbased in northern Iraq. It is the second IRCT member in the country and will provide treatment to all victims of torture, particularly important with the influx of Syrian refugees to the region.
The centre has already helped around 2,000 victims of torture, over half of whom are women and children.
Also this month
We heard from IRCT Regional Coordinator for Europe, Mushegh Yekmalyan, about his recent trip Montenegro to report on the progress human rights defenders are making surrounding torture prevention in the Western Balkans.
Australia’s tough stance on migrants arriving by boat was featured once more, particularly as the policy as been hailed as a victory – all the while ignoring the human rights of the people the policy punishes.
Editor’s Note: This is the second of two blogs on the Latin American Regional Seminar, which took place in Quito, Ecuador a few weeks ago. Read the first one here. Here, IRCT member Equipo Argentino de Trabajo e Investigación Psicosocial (EATIP) of Argentina speaks about the work – and the challenges — of rehabilitating indigenous victims of torture in Latin America.
We want to share our views on torture rehabilitation in the multicultural environment in Argentina, as discussed at the 16th Regional Meeting of the Latin American network of institutions working against torture.
Argentina has a hegemonic culture related to the flood of European migrants from the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century. This culture often does not include the perspectives of the native populations, aggravated by political and administrative centralism. Equipo Argentino de Trabajo e Investigación Psicosocial (EATIP) gives priority to social class factors, including also ethnic and gender factors.
The Latin America regional network is giving more attention to violation of indigenous people rights, especially related to the protection of their territories due to exploitation of natural resources (mining, oil, etc.), cultivation of soya, etc., in which important corporative interests are at the stake. Other characteristics of this problematic situation are the social polarization and confrontation between groups and members in the communities due to co-optation by governments.
For interventions with these groups, we used community-based approaches. For psychosocial interventions in those cases, specific training of professionals is needed. At the present, the economic difficulties that EATIP and other centres in the region are facing impede the continuity of these activities. EATIP has assisted migrant groups from Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru, who live in slums called “Villas Miserias”; and African youths and political refugees.
In the 16th Regional Meeting of the Latin American members of IRCT and allied organisations, our centres identified that the inter-cultural factors have strong significance that enrich our work.
By Dr Mariana Lagos and Mr Ely Stacco, Clinical and Psychosocial Area, EATIP, Argentina
Editor’s Note: The following blog post comes from José Utrera, Regional Coordinator for Latin America. As a holistic approach to rehabilitation of torture survivors must take into consideration the various cultural contexts and methods of collecting data and reporting as well as healing and treatment, Jose addresses the issue of intercultural approaches in the Latin American context. This is the first of two blog posts from IRCT’s annual Latin America meeting of torture rehabilitation centres.
The 16th meeting of the Latin American network of health institutions working against torture and other violations of human rights took place in the last week of September, in the Andean city of Quito, Ecuador. Twenty-seven representatives of 16 organizations, almost all them IRCT members, from 13 Latin American countries met to exchange experiences and discuss strategic issues related to their work.
One of the issues discussed in the meeting was the intercultural approaches to prevention, rehabilitation and access to justice related to victims of torture. This is an important matter because in several countries indigenous people and others as Afro-descendants are significant proportion of the population. Latin American centres are using different methodologies and strategies to face this issue.
A rehabilitation centre in Colombia presented on their experiences of immersion and continuous adaptation of their methodologies and ways of intervention with indigenous communities of Cauca. Before starting the process of collecting and assessing information on the traumatic experiences the communities suffered, staff agree with the population on the purposes and uses the information. Thereafter, the staff live within the communities for some weeks, taking part in their social and religious activities to gain the confidence of people, especially the women, to share their experiences and to understand it as much as possible those experiences and the ways they cope with it. As the team’s comprehension of the resources that communities have to cope with the traumatic experiences— such as, religious rituals, medicinal plants, etc. — and the expectations of the victims and the concrete political context increase, the methodologies for data collection and assessment of individual and collective damage and the approach to rehabilitation are adapted.
The representative of an allied organisation in Guatemala presented their experience on data collection and reporting about the traumatic experiences of indigenous people victims of genocide. They emphasised not only the need to accurately know the language, but also the ways indigenous people express the personal significance and feelings during and after torture, which frequently is difficult to translate in Spanish as it reflects an own worldview (cosmovisión). She also pointed out the need to accompany the victims, especially the women, not only to prepare their testimonies, but also during and after they attest.
The lessons from the regional seminar show the importance of adapting treatment methods to the particular cultural context of victims, one of the fundamentals of holistic rehabilitation.
Different centres presented their experiences, sharing the following issues:
- the methodologies for immersion to gain confidence of indigenous people to share their traumatic experiences and understanding of those experiences;
- aspects related to language, particularly the ways indigenous people express the significance and feelings during and after torture;
- regular adaptation of intervention strategies according to emerging insights of the traumatic experiences and the way persons and communities want to deal with it;
- methodologies to assess the individual and collective damage, including the adaptation and validation of instruments for investigation and reporting;
- adaptation of rehabilitation approaches according to their own resources (traditional medicine, social mechanisms, rituals), their values and the political contexts in which these take place;
- training of professionals to recognise these cultural factors in the processes of assessment and rehabilitation of torture cases.
During the discussion of those experiences, the participants stated that the assessment and reporting of torture cases in the multicultural societies of Latin America aims to a) administer justice, and b) to recognize each person citizen’s rights no matter what his/her culture.
By José Utrera , Regional Coordinator for Latin America and Caribbean
”Enforced disappearances are becoming a major human rights concern in Asia,” read the news radio announcer. “Estimated tens of thousands have been disappeared.”
The structure of that last sentenced grated on the inner copy-editor in me. “…Have been disappeared,” is markedly passive. “By whom?” I want to ask, but the uncertainty of the subject is part of the nature of enforced disappearances. The answer is: we don’t often know.
If someone is enforced, or involuntarily, disappeared, they are just that – they are gone, but no one knows to where. It is likely that they have been killed, but no one knows when or where they are buried. It is possible that they have been tortured, but no one knows if they are OK.
In countries around the world, state officials, such as police, military or other security officials, arrest and detain individuals without their families’ knowledge of their whereabouts or well-being. They are outside of the arms of the law, often tortured, often killed, and rarely found again. They simply disappear, and their families are always left to wonder what happened to their loved one.
According to a 2012 report from the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, 53,778 cases have been reported since 1980. Over 42,000 of these cases, in 82 states, remain unsolved. When a person is secretly abducted, detained or killed by a state agent, this constitutes the human rights violation of enforced disappearance. Like torture, The victims are often tortured while secretly detained.
Such practices were common during the dictatorships in Latin America around the 1970s and 1980s. In Argentina, an estimated 30,000 disappeared, and only recently, with the help of forensic NGOs, have families received the remains of those missing for more than three decades.
Enforced disappearances — like torture — happen in secrecy, between four walls. As Manfred Nowak, former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, wrote in the 2012 Global Reading, “Prison walls have a double function: to lock people in and the public out.” Not only are family members kept from the knowledge of their loved ones whereabouts, but justice cannot find the disappeared. Not seeing and not knowing means there is little recourse for justice and impunity remains.
With no record of the disappeared, how can you label the crime? Was the person tortured? Were they killed? Who is responsible? Without evidence, it is difficult to find and prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes. In countries such as Mexico, Bolivia, Pakistan, Morocco, Thailand, China, and the US, few have been held to account for the thousands of victims of enforced disappearance.
Bringing these crimes to light and ensuring the public remains aware when someone is disappeared is our role, but everyone can help. Our voice is one of the strongest weapons against these crimes and a strong challenge to the reign of impunity.
“You are here to speak about the theme of torture?”
The question comes loud and clear from the receptionist at the receiving desk of the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights in Lima, where I just handed in the passports of our delegation and explained that we have a meeting with the Vice-Minister of Human Rights in Peru. I am positively puzzled by the frankness.
I am in Lima for the IRCT to support member centre Centro de Atención Psicosocial (CAPS) in following up on the implementation of the recommendations on rehabilitating torture survivors issued by the Committee against Torture (CAT) to the PeruvianState in November 2012. Following-up in this case essentially means discussing with the Peruvian government how they have received the recommendations and which steps they intend to take to implement them.
For this purpose, we had asked rehabilitation expert and researcher Dr Nora Sveaass to accompany us. Dr Sveaass is a well-known personality within the anti-torture movement. Her expertise is crucial in meetings like these.
Some days earlier I had met with Dr Nora Sveaass and Dr Carlos Jibaja, Director of CAPS. After a lot of coordination by email before the trip, we were finally able to sit down all three of us in CAPS’ yellow office building in Lima. The following week we would be meeting with the Vice-Ministry for Human Rights, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Health and the Ombudsman. All four are key players in respect to the implementation of the CAT recommendations and the broader objective of ending torture in Peru. We discussed the strategy for the meetings as well as the current political climate in Peru.
Back at the Ministry, sitting in a spacious meeting room with the Vice-Minister for Human Rights and four of his colleagues, we experience one of the sacred moments in the work against torture — a door of political will is opened. The Vice-Minister and his staff were very forthcoming, the discussion was constructive and a clear interest to cooperate was expressed. Although it is only words at this stage, these are the kind of moments you recall and repeat to yourself when things are stuck and human rights feels like a lost cause to the world.
If words are followed by action, the work in Peru might be a milestone in the realisation of the right to rehabilitation for torture survivors, which can be replicated by governments across the globe.
The past year the IRCT, in close collaboration with member centre CAPS, has been working specifically towards ensuring the availability and accessibility of rehabilitation services for torture survivors in Peru. About a year ago, in May 2012, we wrote about reporting to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) to demonstrate how torture is a direct violation of the right to health.
In November 2012, the IRCT and CAPS submitted another alternative report on Peru, this time to the Committee against Torture (CAT). In this report, we again assessed the rehabilitation services for torture victims provided by the Peruvian government and offered recommendations as to how the system can be improved to benefit all victims of torture in the country. To present the report before the Committee and to stress the importance of its content, a colleague from CAPS travelled to Geneva. The presence of our members in Geneva often has a powerful effect because this gives the opportunity for them to personally meet with the Committee members and give more detailed and concrete explanations about the situation in their countries. In doing so, we managed to bring to the Committee’s attention some of the shortfalls and the lack of access to specialised rehabilitation services in Peru.
In the end, CAT issued four concrete recommendations to the Peruvian government on rehabilitation access. This provided an important international expert validation of our work in pushing for torture survivors’ access to proper rehabilitation services at the national level in Peru. The meetings we had with officials of the Peruvian government provided for yet another step in the right direction.
With the adoption of General Comment No. 3 on Article 14 of the United Nations Convention against Torture, which clearly stipulates the obligations of states in respect to providing rehabilitation services for torture survivors, and with concrete recommendations on rehabilitation given to the Peruvian State, we have come a long way.
While all still remains on paper and in diplomatic words, opening doors for cooperation in the political sphere are crucial for creating change on the ground. Let’s see what 2013 brings in terms of implementing the talk.
By Line, project coordinator focusing on Latin America and Asia. The advocacy mission to Peru, part of the Non-State Actors project, was funded by the European Commission.
Brazilian psychologist and human rights activist Vera Vital Brasil knows from experience what she is talking about when she tells about her years of work with torture victims. Joining with other survivors of torture, Vera was among the founders of the anti-torture organisation Grupo Torturo Nunca Mais that, beginning in 1991, provided medical and psychological treatment for victims of torture.
As a student of the Faculty of Pharmacy, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, in the late ’60s, Vera participated actively in the university student movement, a major focus of resistance to Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-1985). Because of her activism, in December 1969, she was arrested and tortured on the premises of the notorious DOI-CODI, the Destacamento de Operações de Informações – Centro de Operações de Defesa Interna (in English: Department of Information Operations – Center for Internal Defense Operations) in Rio de Janeiro, which was the Brazilian intelligence and repression agency during the military government. After three months in prison, Vera left Rio and went into exile in Chile. Her exile lasted six years and upon her return to Brazil, in 1976, she was determined to change the course of her career to try to turn the wrongs that others done to her into something good.
“What do we do with what others have done to us? Internalize this tormenting experience or fight to stop this happening again? I chose the latter,” she says to explain her choice for psychology and clinical work and her involvement with victims of torture.
While working as a chemistry teacher and studying Psychology, Vera participated in volunteer programmes aimed at securing human rights and health care to residents of Rio de Janeiro’s slums. Years later, again as a volunteer, she worked to support people infected with HIV.
This was only the beginning of a long story of work for the protection of human rights. In 1982, Vera joined other former political prisoners living in Rio de Janeiro in their reaction against the appointment to public office of people responsible for torture during the dictatorship. This initiative eventually led a group of former political prisoners, torture survivors and relatives of dead and missing people to found the Grupo Tortura Nunca Mais (GTNM/RJ, which in English stands for Never More Torture Group) in 1985. The group is a non-governmental organisation that was born with a mission to fight for human rights, including the clarification of the deaths and disappearances of political activists and remembrance of past abuses, and struggle against impunity, for justice and for the denunciation of torture and all forms of violence.
The GTNM/RJ was founded at a time when the memory of the deaths, disappearances and torture that occurred during the military dictatorship in Brazil was in danger of being forgotten: silence reigned. “Deeply painful experiences were being put in ‘the trunk of forgetfulness’ and the State had a policy of silence about these events,” says Vera Brasil. The fact that survivors of torture did not talk about their experiences due to feeling unsafe also contributed to the fact that many crimes were falling into oblivion. “Some patients blame themselves for what had happened to them. They thought, for example, that they had not been agile enough to escape the repression and attributed to their own mistakes the error of being arrested. But it was the State that had committed the crimes by killing, torturing, ‘disappearing’ the bodies of opponents and decimating the forces of opposition to the regime.”
In 1991, with funding from the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, the GTNM/RJ formed a clinical team to provide medical and psychological treatment and physical rehabilitation to victims of torture. Vera was part of the team from its creation up until this year.
Justice and redress
Throughout these years, her personal experience and dedication to other victims have convinced her that the trauma caused by torture can never be completely overcome but must be addressed through clinical treatment and proper redress.
“The damage caused by torture is accentuated if it is ignored, if there is no justice, or no redress. The fact that the state, which should guarantee and protect human life, is the agent of violence has a devastating effect on people’s psychological well-being. Our clinical practice is insufficient to cure this damage. But we can try to get people who have gone through this harrowing experience to feel better and give another meaning to this suffering, shifting it from a personal and private level to the collective and historical level, “she says.
In July 1993, when street children and teenagers were murdered by police in Rio de Janeiro, in what became known as the Massacre of Candelaria, the GTNM/RJ team members realized that their area of work should be expanded. “We were taking care of those affected by the state violence that occurred during the dictatorship and realized that another segment of society was being affected by state violence during the transition to democracy” says Vera.
The poor: today’s victims
Vera says that there has been a change in the main target of state violence. “In Brazil, there is no longer political persecution as there was during the military regime. Today the poor are the biggest victims of state violence and, unfortunately, torture and mistreatment are both serious and widespread throughout the country.”
“Every day we witness examples of grotesque brutality, execution, torture, violence and abuse in Brazil. Often the police enter the favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro shooting indiscriminately, supposedly in pursuit of drug traffickers. In a prison in the state of Espirito Santo, dozens of inmates were crammed into shipping containers where the temperature reached 50 degrees centigrade. In São Paulo, a young motorcycle courier was recently tortured to death by police and who then threw his body into a city street”, she adds.
“Historically, the violence committed by the state, including torture, does not receive media attention, unlike cases of family violence or violence committed by criminals, which always gains prime time coverage on television news,” she says. “The reason is that the main victims of state violence are poor. And the poor in Brazil are invisible. It is as if there was an attempt by political and economic elites of erasing the violence that occur in this sector of the society “, she says
Despite this situation, Vera highlights the efforts of some sectors of the government and thinks that Brazilian society has gradually advanced in protecting human rights. “But it’s amazing to note the discrepancy between sincere concern for human rights from certain parts of the state and disregard from other state actors.,” she says.
Bringing crimes to justice
For her, the best example of progress in this area is the Third National Program for Human Rights, which resulted from the mobilization of civil society and was launched in December last year by President Lula da Silva. According to Vera, despite controversial changes recently made to the program, it still represents a breakthrough in efforts to protect human rights in the country.
Vera is no longer working at GTNM/RJ, but her activism against state violence continues. She participates in a group of therapists who are working on the creation of a national public policy for the care of those affected by state violence, and also in the activities of an organization that works to record and bring to justice crimes committed by the state.
Her current militancy reflects her concerns that reparation to victims of torture and other forms of state violence that should be comprehensive and not limited to financial compensation. “We need to expand our collective knowledge about what happened, send those responsible to trial and create memory of what happened,” she urges.
In recent years, thousands of people who were persecuted by the military regime have received economic compensation from the Brazilian state. Vera fears that the economic compensation ends up having a perverse effect. “The economic compensation can make people shut up and silence their cry for justice.” The 64-year-old Vera wants to continue working to prevent such silencing occurs.