One year on: Egyptian government shuts down country’s only rehabilitation centre for victims of torture
A year ago, we shared a story about how Egypt’s last remaining centre for the treatment and documentation of alleged torture victims was ordered to close by the Egyptian authorities. The reason given at the time was that the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture had ‘breached unspecified health ministry regulations’. Critics on the other hand labelled the order a crackdown on human rights organisations and defenders in the country.
Now El Nadeem has been closed after it allegedly violated terms of its licence. A few weeks ago, El Nadeem staff arrived at the centre to find that it had been sealed by police. According to the co-founder of the centre, Aida Seif el-Dawla, the building’s doorman was taken into police custody, but was later released.
Last year, when the centre was ordered to close, Aida Seif el-Dawla called the decision politically motivated. She said at the time that: “This is a political decision and it’s coming from the cabinet that represents all the actors that are keen on the survival of this regime, despite the oppression and the torture that the Egyptian people are living through on a daily basis.”
Not much has changed since then. Since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took office in June 2014, repression and shrinking of the public space has only increased, targeting the entire spectrum of human rights organisations, professional and labour associations, political activists, journalists and media.
In its 2017 World Report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that authorities continued to effectively ban protests and that police had arrested scores of people in connection with protests, many preemptively. What is more, HRW noted that authorities had also ordered travel bans and asset freezes against prominent human rights organisations.
Despite the constitution forbidding torture and the abuse of detainees, the practice is widespread in Egyptian prisons. Reports of torture and ill-treatment and enforced disappearances in Egypt are frequent, with El Nadeem consistently recording high numbers of allegations of police torture. In late 2015 the centre and other civil society organisations announced they were able to document 625 torture cases in Egyptian prisons.
In the wake of El Nadeem’s closure, international rights organisations, including the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), of which El Nadeem is a member, have come out in support of the centre.
“El Nadeem provides crucial psychological support to torture victims and is a credible public voice when the Egyptian authorities try to silence the victims. We know from our members around the world that torture inflicts terrible damage to individuals, families and societies. El Nadeem performs a crucial societal function in promoting human rights and democracy and it is high time that all of us who believe in human rights and democracy take a close look at Egypt,” said Victor Madrigal-Borloz who is the Secretary-General of the IRCT.
Whether the government will eventually provide an explanation as to why it closed the centre remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: as long as the El Nadeem remains closed, torture victims in dire need of help are not able to receive the treatment they need.
“You have to listen to a lot of horrible stories and accounts. Do you have a space for processing them?” asked a psychotherapist I had been interviewing as part of my research. He was asking me how I was coping with the heavy topic I had to deal with during my fellowship. Like many of my interviewees, he is a psychotherapist who works with survivors of torture. On that day, he had been telling me about his experience with patients who had been subjected to sexual violence as a means of torture. During what had become a very normal day for me at the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) office in Copenhagen, his emphatic question hit me so unexpectedly that I did not know what to say.
Barbara Giovanelli recently completed a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellowship with the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT). In her blog post published on the Hilton Prize Coalition website, Barbara reflects upon her research projects aimed at capturing stories of sexual torture victims, working alongside IRCT member organisations.
(From Hilton Prize Coalition, by Barbara Giovanelli)
I had joined the IRCT as an intern in February 2016. For five months, I contributed to the work of various IRCT teams with my knowledge on gender-based violence. I devised fact-sheets for advocacy activities, contributed to policy documents, participated in the evaluation of grant reports and completed background research for fundraising. As I found out more and more about the intersection of gender, sexual violence, and torture, my supervisors and I came up with a new project for the rest of my time in Copenhagen: for the last two months of my internship, I conducted a study on the specific psychosocial and health consequences that sexual methods of torture can cause. After a summer break, I re-joined the IRCT team for four more months through a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellowship in order to conclude the research and turn its outcomes into a final report.
I interviewed over 20 experts working in rehabilitation centers on sexual methods of torture. Although I used a comprehensive questions guide to structure the interviews, I did my best to let the experts talk freely about their first-hand experiences. Most of the interviewees were psychologists; others were doctors, social workers or lawyers. Many of them work in difficult circumstances, facing hostile political environments or critical financial situations. Once, for instance, an interview had to be postponed several times because my interviewee was called to an emergency intervention in the conflict-torn region of North Kivu in eastern Congo.
When I analysed all the rich information that I had gathered and looked for emerging themes and trends, I came to understand that there is one central and very sad aspect that accompanies almost all crimes of sexual torture: the fact that very often, victims do not report them.
While reporting a crime would be the first step, not only to claim justice, but also to allow the healing process to commence, feelings of shame and the fear of social stigmatisation deter survivors from disclosing their experience of abuse. In most societies, everything that has to do with sexuality is a very private issue and is strictly defined by social norms and taboos. “So they hide their stories and suffer in silence,” one of the experts explained.
To start breaking the silence and deconstructing the stigma around sexual torture, the outcome of my fellowship is a report that shares the knowledge of distinguished experts and draws conclusions on a phenomenon that is widely under-represented in research. The report also includes a series of case stories to illustrate the devastating consequences of sexual torture on the health and social life of survivors, and identifies particular needs resulting from the devastation.
At the conclusion of my fellowship with the IRCT, I now know the answer I would give that psychotherapist. It is not easy for anyone who has to deal with such crimes, but the work I did at my desk in Copenhagen is nothing compared to all the efforts undertaken by you, the front-line aid workers who may be reading this, and most of all by you, the survivors. I deeply admire your strength and courage. It was truly an honour for me to learn from you and help you share your experiences.
About the Hilton Prize Coalition
The Hilton Prize Coalition is an independent alliance of the 21 winners of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize — working together globally to advance their unique missions and achieve collective impact in humanitarian assistance, human rights, development, education and health. Through its three Signature Programmes — the Hilton Prize Coalition Fellows Programme, the Disaster Resiliency and Response Programme and the Storytelling Programme – the Coalition is continually leveraging the resources, talents and expertise of each of its members to innovate new models for consideration.
For more information please visit their website.
It was the oppressive regime of former Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi that led to the establishment of Mwatikho Torture Survivors’ Organization (MATESO) in 1995. As president, Moi was responsible for the torture, death and disappearance of thousands of people who were considered supporters of the opposition.
While many people were tortured in the notorious Nyayo House torture chambers in the heart of Nairobi, the president’s crackdown went far beyond the country’s capital. One of the places affected by the violence was the town of Bungoma near the Ugandan border.
“The international community realised there was a problem in Kenya and they came to the country through Amnesty International to look for victims of torture. They identified Bungoma as an area with many victims and that’s why MATESO was founded there,” explains Taiga Job Wanyanja, centre coordinator of MATESO.
Taiga was one of the centre’s founders. He saw firsthand how people who had been subjected to unthinkable atrocities were in urgent need of help. At the time, torture victims in Kenya had nowhere to go to receive rehabilitation. There was a group of international doctors who came to the country to help rehabilitate the victims. This led to the foundation of MATESO.
“Back then we didn’t even know about rehabilitation so we started borrowing approaches from other countries on how to rehabilitate. Victims wanted medication, they wanted psychosocial support and counselling because of the kind of torture they had been through, which was horrific,” recalls Taiga.
According to those who survived, the regime used a repertoire of gruesome torture methods including electric wires, beatings, falanga and sexual abuse.
“People were victims of government perpetrators and other state agents who were trained by the police to carry out the crackdown. They used torture methods to suppress those not supporting Moi’s regime.”
Only a few years after Moi resigned in 2002, Bungoma saw the rise of a guerrilla militia group called Sabaot Land Defence Force (SLDF). The separatist group, which soon became very powerful, began to implement a parallel administration system and set up an unofficial taxation of local residents. The group was accused of killing more than 1,000 people, and of committing various atrocities including murder, torture and rape. In the course of 18 months, over 66,000 people were displaced because of SLDF.
“I think the government somehow relaxed and allowed this group to become a very serious force. It set up kangaroo courts, set up torture chambers, it initiated its own taxation system, carried out abductions and forced disappearances. In fact over 1,000 people were killed during that period,” says Taiga.
Along with other human rights defenders in the country, Taiga suddenly found himself as a target of the militia and as the situation deteriorated, the less safe he was. At this point, the government had finally deployed the military to crack down on SLDF, but it was using similar techniques as the group and began targeting citizens who were not part of SLDF. According to Taiga, the government was even using the same system of disappearances, torture and arrests as SLDF and when he and other human rights defenders voiced their concern about this, the military came after them as well.
It was clear that his life was at risk and he had no other choice than flee to Uganda, leaving behind his family.
“I had to leave my family behind in Kenya. I had five children and my wife who I left behind. They were also being threatened and had to move to another place.
“After a year I came back to find that the military had crushed the militia group and their illegal activities. The military had caused a lot of damage to the entire community of the western region of Kenya. More than one million people had been affected and the entire community of that region was suffering from PTSD.”
Today, MATESO continues to treat victims of the former governments and SLDF with entire communities suffering from the effects of torture. Each year, MATESO staff, consisting of 15 full-time or part-time counsellors, psychiatrists, medical doctors, nurses and lawyers, provide services to 1,000 torture survivors. But while many of them are victims of past violations, MATESO also support victims of ongoing police brutality.
Taiga tells us about a recent episode that took place in a small village. The police beat up a group of people and raped the women, but despite the public outcry that followed, the perpetrators were not brought to justice. In fact, when the victims tried to report the attacks, they found themselves reporting to the perpetrating police officers. A stark reminder that impunity is still widespread in Kenya.
The high level of impunity is particularly evident to Taiga who continues to be a target for threats and acts of harassment. As a result, he has to take his precautions when addressing a human rights issue in public or simply try to avoid confronting the government over an issue to do with torture. Yet, he continues to treat torture victims, who, had it not been for him and MATESO, would not be able to access rehabilitation services.
“I am also a victim and I know that the healing process is a long process. Victims need a lot of help. They require a long-term process to heal in my experience. After some time and after intervention I have seen people recover and really appreciate the psychosocial support we have given them. We have many survivors who have told us we have made a difference in their life. Most people cannot afford the services they need so through our intervention they feel they are at ease with life now because they can get the care they need.”
MATESO is a member of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT). To find out more, please visit the MATESO website.
“When we succeeded, funders asked us to open other centres, as they saw the impact of what we were doing. It was the first time people were speaking about torture. The word torture had been forbidden, the previous government forbid people to talk about it.”
When Salah Ahmad founded a rehabilitation centre in the city of Kirkuk in the Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq in 2005, it was the beginning of a journey that would lead to the establishment of a network of nine branches throughout Kurdistan-Iraq.
Since 2005, these centres have provided services to more than 20,000 men, women and children. It is a remarkable success, but has not been an easy journey for the organisation, which is now called the Jiyan Foundation for Human Rights.
Salah recalls that when the Kirkuk centre was founded in 2005, after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, people were still living in fear. “I had a patient who came to me and told me he needed my help, but said I had to promise not to write down anything. I asked why and he said, ‘Because I am afraid if they come back they will know everything about me.’”
Yet the Kirkuk centre went from strength to strength and funders like the German Government, EU and the UN recognised the need for more centres like it. All the centres have the same system in place and provide psychological, medical, legal and social support. Some have specific programmes to respond to the needs of torture victims in the area. One of these programmes is an inpatient clinic for women victims of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).
The programme came about through the work the Jiyan Foundation is doing in the Khanke refugee camp near Dohuk in Northern Iraq, which is home to over 18,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). Many of the women living in the camp have been liberated from ISIS and have had horrific experiences.
“They are in a very bad state. They lost everything, their life, their city, their health. These women have been sold, raped, every awful thing you can imagine. ISIS destroyed them as human beings,” Salah says. He realised they needed specialist help, having seen how many of the women were committing suicide, and that one two-hour session each week was not enough to help them.
The Jiyan Foundation started a centre 300 km away from the camp where the women could go for different periods of time and could bring their children with them. The recommended length of a visit is eight weeks and Salah says the intensive therapy has made a big difference in their lives.
“It is important to get them out of the camp, because there they only speak about their problems. We take them in small groups, because the cases are so complicated and difficult. Then they can get follow up treatment when they go back to the camp. This clinic is now more than a year old and we have helped more than 100 women this way.”
Yet just finding the money for transport to get the women to and from the camp is an ongoing challenge for the Jiyan Foundation team. The lack of infrastructure in general makes getting things done, and done quickly, difficult. Salah says, “You have to start from zero all the time. This makes the costs higher. The government cannot help because we have such a big financial problem. We have a large number of IDPs and refugees. We don’t have the capacity, it is too much for us.
“When we started the Kirkuk Centre there was no infrastructure. To build up the foundation in a country like Iraq is not easy. Sometimes you can need up to two months to get to speak with the authorities to get an agreement to get something done.”
Despite all of this Salah says the Jiyan Foundation is going in the right direction, “In these 11 years we have succeeded in doing a good job in many ways and we support thousands of people.”
The Foundation is named after Jiyan, the Kurdish word for life and it is clear that the work that Salah and the 170 staff members working in the centres are doing, is bringing life and healing to Kurdistan.
In France, IRCT member centre Parcours d’Exil uses a vast range of methods to treat their clients. Among these approaches are art therapy, language classes and cultural events, which can help accelerate torture survivors’ recovery. For one torture survivor art therapy proved the key to easing his fears and allowed him to deal with the horrific trauma of his past.
In August 2015, Parcours d’Exil was contacted by a volunteer of Iranian descent working for the Red Cross, who had benefitted from one of the centre’s training programmes. She asked the centre to make an emergency appointment for an Iranian asylum seeker who had arrived in France two days before.
On the day of the consultation, asylum seeker N appeared to be in a state of fear, incapable of uttering a word, watchful of everything and everyone and crying all the time. He made it clear that he was afraid of the therapist and he showed signs of being afraid he was being watched and threatened.
As the consultations went on, N slowly started to communicate with the help of an Afghan translator, who the centre had chosen to avoid bringing back his memories of the Iranian “aggressor”. He managed to tell the therapist about the traumatic events he had endured.
Parcours d’Exil quickly realised that verbal communication would be complicated, and could hinder therapeutic cooperation as they brought back N’s impressions of the interrogation. Centre staff decided to introduce him to their art therapist. Art therapy, in this particular form, proved to be the real entry point, helping N to accept and engage in the broader therapeutic process at the centre.
In their first meeting, N and the art therapist found themselves sitting on rugs, drinking tea while listening to classical music.
It became clear that N patient presented a post-traumatic dissociative disorder. He complained of anxiety, insomnia and post-traumatic nightmares (in which he found himself, for instance, in a bunker without any light), memory disorders and an inability to focus, which forced him to write down everything. He could not take the bus or metro for fear of not being able to exit it. He also complained of being unusually irritable, always fearing that the person he was speaking to would try to take control of him.
Like many other patients, N did not want any medication, having been exposed to “harmful” treatments in the past. Furthermore, he had been hospitalised in a psychiatric ward after two suicide attempts before being incarcerated. External elements exacerbated his symptoms, particularly when he learned of his mother’s hospitalisation back in Iran.
In order to familiarise him with Parcours d’Exil’s Health Centre, he was invited to attend French courses and music workshops that the centre organises, while continuing the art therapy. It soon became clear that participating in these classes, within the reassuring frame of the centre, had become a “necessity” for him, and his social behaviour changed dramatically.
He never missed any of the cultural visits organised by the centre, and he was gradually able to socialise again and regain some confidence. He put himself forward to sing Persian songs during music classes, started to communicate in French during the French for Foreign Speakers sessions and decided to try to learn how to play the piano.
Like in many cases, one simple detail or situation can easily trigger bad memories. During a French language lesson, N was shown a picture of a bathtub. He immediately froze and was overcome with an immense sadness.
Although the nightmares were a constant reminder of his imprisonment and torture, the courses enabled him to recover the long-forgotten feeling that life could be seen through a positive lens. Along with psychotherapy, art therapy, music and French language lessons were key aspects of the positive outcome of his treatment, in terms of his quality of life and speed of recovery.
All the more so given the fact that his case was extremely complex, and such patients often take years to recover. On numerous occasions, N was able to talk about the improvements in his life, and how he behaved and felt about himself. It took less than six months for N to make this progress.
N’s story confirms the idea that Parcours d’Exil promotes: That the inclusion of artistic and creative activities is a powerful catalyst to accelerate self-reconstruction.
Before we look at what’s ahead in 2017, we at World Without Torture want to look back at some of the stories we covered in 2016. Stories that caught the attention of readers around the world, stories that covered a mix of issues, from survivor testimonials, interviews with those on the frontline providing care to victims, to inspirational posts on different approaches to rehabilitation.
It has been a busy year and we couldn’t include everything, so if some of your favourites are missing, please mention them in the comments. Thank you for your continued support and engagement, we look forward to sharing more stories with you throughout 2017.
International Women’s Day: Four strong women in the fight against torture and ill-treatment
To mark International Women’s Day on 8 March, we highlighted the work and lives of four strong women who – in their own way – have fought human rights violations such as torture, sexual violence and other forms of ill treatment. Read the full blog here.
5 creative approaches to rehabilitation
No two torture survivors are the same, and across the globe rehabilitation centres explore what kind of rehabilitation method works best to help each individual survivor rebuild their life. In this blog we found out more about some of the most creative approaches used around the world.
Still no justice in the “Wheel of Torture” cases in the Philippines
The Philippines was in the news many times in 2016, as the number of those killed in President Rodrigo Duterte’s violent war on drugs continues to grow. Yet before things escalated we did a follow up story on a case that came out in February 2014, when the world was shocked to learn about the “Wheel of Torture”, a sadistic game being used at a secret detention compound in Biñan, Laguna Province, Philippines. Find out more here.
Around the world: 26 June 2016 in pictures
26 June is always a huge highlight of the year, and 2016 was no different. Thousands of people across the globe joined the torture rehabilitation movement in showcasing both the resilience and creativity of survivors and caregivers alike. We shared a snapshot of the types of activities that took place. Check out the images here.
6 things you may not know about the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture
This was one of our most popular blogs of the year, with 2016 marking the appointment of a new Special Rapporteur on Torture, Dr. Nils Melzer. We shared some information on the role and what it means to be a torture investigator working on behalf of the United Nations. Read the blog here.
Fighting Torture: Q&A with Andrés Gautier
In our Fighting Torture series, we speak with people from a number of professions who work with and support survivors of torture. One of the most read was with Andrés Gautier, the co-founder of the Institute for Research and Therapy of Torture Sequels and State Violence (ITEI) in Bolivia. Check it out here.
In the heart of Sweden’s third biggest city, Malmø, lies one of the Swedish Red Cross Treatment Center for persons affected by war and torture. Every day the centre provides specialised treatment to torture survivors from all corners of the world. Since the centre first opened its doors in the late 1980s, it has helped nearly 5,000 traumatised men and women who have escaped violence and persecution, war and armed conflict.
On some occasions, the trauma from torture will not rear its ugly head until decades after the incident, explains Anette Carnemalm, Head of the centre in Malmø, which is a member of the IRCT. She has seen this happening with many of her clients, particularly women victims of torture, who only start to suffer from trauma and depression years later when their children are grown up and their time is no longer filled with caring for them on a daily basis. This shows in the group of clients that the centre treats.
“Of course we have many clients from the Middle East, but there are still many clients from the Balkans, especially women who survived the war,” says Anette. “What happens is that when a family arrives, the woman is consumed with looking after the family. When the children move from home the woman will often experience an existential crisis, which can lead to the trauma and depression that was left dormant for so many years.”
Knowing this, it is perhaps not surprising that Anette predicts that we will see a similar thing with Syrian women 20 years from now.
While the consequences of torture haven’t changed, the refugees coming to Sweden have. Before the war in the Former Yugoslavia, there were the dictatorships in Latin America during the 1970s, which saw an influx of refugees from this part of the world. Today, many of the refugees coming to Sweden are from Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, as well as Somalia and Eritrea.
“It’s been a year since Sweden saw a great raise of influx in refugees arriving in the country, but we only started receiving clients much later, which is a natural consequence of refugees trying to integrate and settle. Not until they’re beyond the acute crisis will they seek help for trauma symptoms,” says Anette and continues: “The real influx in clients will be seen in a year or two from now.”
Unlike other Red Cross centres in Sweden that take many asylum seekers waiting for their case to be processed, the centre in Malmø treats a higher number of people with permanent residency. In fact, Malmø is Sweden’s most multicultural city and in the inner city there are residential areas, which are home to a large number of families with an immigrant background, as well as students and artists.
Despite this, Sweden at present has the lowest denominating standard in the EU when it comes to asylum seeking law, after just recently having introduced increasingly strict legislation on immigration. For many traumatised asylum seekers, this means they face a great deal of uncertainty, which often hinders their treatment.
“It is important to create a safe environment for a client in order for them to seek treatment, but it’s very hard in the present situation to convey that this is not a threatening environment, when it does seem threatening for a refugee who is here alone and doesn’t know if he or she will be allowed to stay,” says Anette, as she points out that the situation for centres like hers is also uncertain. Even though her centre has so far been protected from any funding cuts, there are no guarantees.
“The political climate has changed and we now see political parties objecting to our funding so we don’t know where we’re heading in this sense.” So far, the centre has managed to expand to meet a growing demand for its services and today it has 22 staff, 19 full-time and three part-time. Their work has made a difference to not only many of their clients, but also to the torture rehabilitation movement.
“We see our efforts make a great difference in our work with the Istanbul Protocol, documenting torture, but also when a patient tells us that they are feeling better. It is immensely rewarding working, or even just sharing a coffee, with a person who has survived such terrible circumstances. See them fighting to get their life back, improving their relationship with their family and regain some of the trust that has been lost.”
“It is clear that Anette treasures her work despite the challenges that her and her colleagues face: “From here I don’t know where to go. I’m with the Red Cross and I am doing this job, and I don’t know where I would want to go that could be any better. It’s a very rewarding job, but obviously also very strenuous. As the Head of the centre it is very important to ensure that my staff don’t get too overwhelmed or stressed and stay healthy.”
Work challenges and strict immigration policies aside, Anette does hope that her centre, as well as the global rehabilitation movement will become better at sharing knowledge and influencing the current political climate.
“I hope that our knowledge will influence the political debates to a larger extent and that we can convey our knowledge about torture and rehabilitation to the rest of the world so we can change people’s opinions and understanding. There is this political movement, which is global, but there is also a growing knowledge of trauma, which is a good thing. We do a lot of lectures and people are always taken aback when they hear about our work. They didn’t know… so we need to be better at sharing knowledge and raising awareness.
“I hope that we continue to build our scientific knowledge about trauma and how best to help. As an example, there is a lot of research on how to treat PTSD among war veterans, but not much research on how to treat PTSD among people in exile – people who are supposed to integrate in a different country. What is it like to suffer from trauma in a different country, without your family and your social network, not knowing the culture nor the language?”
It is clear that the rehabilitation sector still has work to do in terms of developing and sharing its knowledge about trauma among refugees and asylum seekers and what the best treatment methods are. It is also clear that centres like the one in Malmø have a key role to play in doing so.
Anette Carnemalm was among the presenters at the IRCT 10th International Scientific Symposium, which took place from 4-7 December in Mexico City. The Symposium brought together more than 350 participants from across professions, sectors and countries.
The concept of collective memory can be used to provide psychosocial support to victims of torture, as well as reminding society of past atrocities. Professor Carlos Beristain, who is a physician, specialist in health education and doctor in psychology, believes collective memory can help survivors make sense of the trauma they have experienced.
“The memory of what happened hurts, because it brings torture victims’ experience into the present day. Yet it also demands that the victim regain their dignity. The key is the psychosocial support. For victims of torture and other human rights violations, memory can help create a social framework for recognising their experiences, which they often have to keep inside or hide in silence. Memory also contributes to insuring the same trauma never happens again.”
This is how Professor Beristain explains the power of victims’ memory when it comes to healing. Having worked with victims since 1988, he has seen first-hand how collective memory can help torture victims understand their experiences better.
Beristain started out by focusing on the diagnosis of injuries caused by torture and the analysis of medical reports of cases in the Basque Country and in other countries. “In 1989 I went to El Salvador to train lawyers, doctors, psychologists and social workers on the documentation of cases, medical aspects of psychosocial care for victims and strengthening the community against the risk of arrest and torture, since this was a systematic practice during the war,” he explains.
He knows only too well the consequences of torture and how it can affect entire communities. “In 1990 I went to Guatemala for the first time because other human rights organisations were interested in my work, even though there were no survivors in Guatemala because few political prisoners survived. Providing support to the relatives of disappeared persons and those killed in the massacres were the most important issues at the time. In Guatemala we learned about other forms of torture, such as acts of torture against the general public during the massacres and survivors who witnessed these acts, as well as the enormous impact of terror on Mayan communities.”
These experiences have reinforced his believe in the importance of collective memory. “It can especially help in expressing their experiences in a positive sense. Because it is not only the pain and what happened that is important, it is also their resistance to it and their fighting spirit.
“Many victims see their experiences reflected in the more global work of collective memory, reaffirming themselves as a person and letting go of the negative image they have of themselves that creates a stigma where they or others feel they deserved to be tortured.”
Beristain was part of the Interdisciplinary Group created by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2015 that investigated the case of the 43 missing students of Ayotzinapa in Guerrero. A high profile case that attracted press attention from across the globe. He explains that, “Our work consisted of accompanying the victims, investigating the case and what happened the students, restoring a dialogue with the state and supporting them in analysing the reports and allegations about torture.”
Professor Beristain has been working with the relatives of disappeared persons in Mexico for several years. “Some of them have survived kidnapping, and all of them suffered from the impact of the torture of forced disappearances and the lack of a state response to these atrocities. During workshops we ran we made space to share, to cry and to try to understand what had happened, despite the pain of many participants,” he says.
“Through our work and support, many relatives have gone on to lead organisations, to have direct contact with the authorities, to review records or to take action, even in situations of repression or intimidation. The psychosocial support my colleagues and I have provided has played an important role in the development of these processes and organisations.”
Professor Beristain will speak about survivor participation in research and treatment planning at the upcoming IRCT International Scientific Symposium, which takes place in Mexico from 4 to 7 December. It is closely connected with collective memory and a topic that he feels strongly about. “Survivors should be involved from the start. Firstly, because torture victims are in a process of regaining the control of their lives on their own terms and their ability to make decisions and take an active role is fundamental. Secondly, because of their experiences. Although their memories might be fragmented or limited, they can provide the group with a more positive perspective and act as an example for others,” he says.
During a workshop with women survivors in Columbia, one of the survivors, who is also the leader of a women’s organisation, said, “It’s the first time in ten years that I stopped feeling guilty.” This was as a result of speaking with others in the group. We know that guilt can fill the space where the person tries to make sense of what happened and this guilt has a way of trying to take control of the situation, as well as having an enormous psychological impact on the person.”
While much progress is being made in the sector, Professor Beristain says more is needed to, “Help survivors face the consequences of their experiences, while reinforcing social ties and strengthening the social fabric of communities. In other words, it is not only a question of reducing suffering, but also contributing to the fight by tackling its causes. It is important to support victims and strengthen their psychological state and ability to integrate in society, as well as helping them to take their case to court and strengthen their ties with other victims so they can play an active role and not be the passive victim.”
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?
Jens Modvig was unanimously elected as the Chair of the UN Committee against Torture in April 2016. He has worked in the torture rehabilitation sector for more than 20 years, from his time as a medical doctor to his current role as Director of the Health Department at DIGNITY, the Danish Institute Against Torture. We find out what challenges he has faced in his new role and how the Committee relies on having close relationships with civil society.
Q: How long have you worked in the field of torture rehabilitation and human rights?
I started working for RCT (Rehabilitation and Research Centre) /IRCT (International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims) – RCT is now DIGNITY – in 1994 so it has been more than 20 years. It has been a great privilege for me to use my professional background in such an important field. I do not think that many people are as blessed as I am to have such a meaningful occupation.
Q: Can you describe a typical day in the office/field for you?
When I am in DIGNITY, I mainly work with matters related to medical knowledge of torture. This could be drafting or reviewing research papers or manuals for health professionals. When I am in Geneva for sessions of the Committee against Torture, we are in session all day, considering reports from state parties through an interactive dialogue with a delegation from the country in question.
These sessions are public and webcasted. During this session, which unfortunately prevents me from attending the IRCT Scientific Symposium in Mexico, we consider reports from Sri Lanka, Turkmenistan, Armenia, Monaco, Ecuador, Namibia, Finland and Cabo Verde. In between sessions I have meetings, internal or with ambassadors from countries being considered, or I prepare for the next day.
In the field, I most often engage in training or awareness sessions to build capacity or raise awareness of the problem of torture and the need to prevent torture and rehabilitate victims.
Q: Can you give us an example of how you have seen your work make a difference?
In a recent meeting in Ghana organised by the Convention against Torture initiative, initiated by the governments of Chile, Denmark, Indonesia, Ghana and Morocco, representatives of Kenya and Uganda explained that they had engaged in large legislative processes to have anti-torture legislation in place, and in both instances, this was prompted by recommendations by the Committee against Torture after consideration of these two countries.
Another example is when NGOs have assisted the Committee with a country review, for instance, by submitting a shadow report or having a private meeting with the Committee ahead of the public meeting, in some cases the NGOs fear reprisals once the session is completed. In such cases, I may issue a public warning to the state party delegation that such measures are unacceptable and will be reacted to immediately. In these cases I believe that the NGOs are just a tiny bit more secure, just as they often solicit and appreciate such messages from the Committee.
Q: How has this work changed since you started?
I think the anti-torture movement in general has been much better organised, and the professional level of fighting torture has increased considerably.
Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the torture rehabilitation sector?
The biggest challenge is to get state parties to the Convention against Torture to assume their responsibilities laid down in article 14 of the Convention, i.e. the right to rehabilitation. If they did, we would not have the symptomatic problem of funding difficulties for the rehabilitation centres, and the sector would thrive, to the benefit of the victims.
In this regard, the IRCT Scientific Symposium a unique opportunity for the movement to take stock of its scientific achievements. In my opinion, scientific achievements are of great importance to the movement and give strength and legitimacy to the anti-torture movement as a whole, but are also a way of creating respect and maybe even protection for the individual NGOs that deal with torture victims.
In addition, it is clear that the right to rehabilitation is not enforceable in all state parties to the Convention against Torture and a lot needs to be done in this respect. The Committee is certainly working on this during its dialogue with state parties, but I believe that state representatives who will participate in the Symposium will obtain a much deeper understanding of why rehabilitation is needed and necessary and why states should ensure that the right to rehabilitation is available to all victims of torture.
How important is the CAT’s relationship with civil society organisations?
The Committee against Torture relies on close collaboration with civil society, particularly in the field of alternative reporting. If we only had the official government reports available when carrying out our country reviews, we could easily be left with an incomplete or even wrong picture. Civil society organisations like IRCT members often provide crucial information to the Committee, often based on statistics derived from their clinical work with survivors of torture; and the IRCT plays a crucial role in supporting its members and facilitating their dialogue with the Committee.
Q: What are your hopes for the future?
Obviously I hope that the anti-torture movement, both the civil society based and the intergovernmental work gains much more strength and awareness so that we in fact are able to effectively fight torture.
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?
Try to imagine yourself in a situation where you were unjustly accused of terrorism. What would be important to you?
“When I got out of jail, I stayed in my house for a year,” says Claudia. “I cried, and I suffered so much. I had had plans for the future with my partner, but when I got out of jail, he left me. I felt like the whole world had turned its back on me because I was a rape victim. During that time, I began to drink a lot, and I started to go to a lot of bars. I did many things I didn’t normally do. And then I realised that the government had tied me up for a moment. They laid the first stone of my destruction. But even with all of this, I said to myself, ‘I am still Claudia! I am still Claudia! I was raped, but this does not take away my dignity.”
These are the words of Claudia. She is one of the 45 women arrested by police in Mexico one morning in May 2006 at a market square where they sold flowers. Dozens were seriously injured, two people were killed and many of those arrested sexually assaulted. The women have never received justice for what they experienced and continue to fight the impunity of their perpetrators. They have become known around the world because of their fight for justice.
In September this year, a little over 10 years since the event, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) filed an application with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in relation to their case. The Commission noticed the “existence of severe acts of physical and psychological violence, including diverse forms of sexual violence against the eleven women and rape in the case of seven women”.
This development is a milestone in the struggle of the Women of Atenco, as not a single person has been convicted of any crime related to the assaults. In 2013 the state partially admitted responsibility, but the Women of Atenco say it has failed to deliver justice as the federal forces involved in the assaults have never received sanctions.
In addition, after the events of 3 May the state initially prosecuted several of the women rather than the police officers involved. Five were imprisoned for a year or more, on charges such as blocking traffic. Achieving some sense of justice may go some way to helping the women overcome the trauma of their past. “I have not overcome it, not even a little. It is something that haunts me and you don’t survive. It stays with you,” says Maria Patricia Romero Hernández, one of the women, in a previous interview.
The IACHR had previously recommended that the state arrange full reparation for the victims, including providing them with medical and psychological treatment, continue its investigations effectively to “fully establish what happened, and to identify and punish the different grades of responsibility, from the material authors to other forms of responsibility”.
However, the Commission was not satisfied that the Mexican state followed its recommendations and has now stepped up its action by filing the application. A ruling made by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights would be binding, unlike the recommendations, and could create a judicial precedent that could prevent further sexual abuses by federal security forces.
The fact that the case is finally receiving the attention it deserves has not stopped the Women of Atenco from continuing to spread their message and two of them, Italia Mendez and Norma Jimenez, will be keynote speakers at the upcoming IRCT 10th International Scientific Symposium in December in Mexico City. The women will speak in a session on survivor participation in research and treatment planning and will share their experiences.
“We are those who did not surrender to the misogyny of the state, and rejected the place that perpetrators assigned to us. They tried to take our identity, but we responded by shouting our name out loudly and reclaiming our right to be. We are breaking paradigms, taboos and raising awareness about the stigmatisation of survivors,” says Italia.