Posts Tagged human rights

Around the world: 26 June 2016 in pictures

Just as we have seen in previous years, creativity played a big role in marking this year’s 26 June campaign. Thousands of people across the globe joined the torture rehabilitation movement in showcasing both the resilience and creativity of survivors and caregivers alike.

 

TPO Cambodia – Transcultural Psychosocial Organization

• TPO Cambodia – Transcultural Psychosocial Organization

This year, TPO Cambodia organised an event together with torture survivors of the Khmer Rouge Regime at their headquarters in Phnom Penh. Survivors, TPO staff and other guests discussed the right to compensation and rehabilitation for the victims of torture. The event began with a guided meditation by one of the TPOs counsellors, Dr. Muny, and a TPOs technical advisor, who reminded the audience about the importance of the commemoration of this day and the development of rehabilitation rights for victims of torture.

In addition, in a symbolic act, TPO staff and survivors freed a dozen of caged birds on the TPO´s rooftop, follow by a speech of a survivor, Mr. Ith Udom, who shared some of his experiences and expressed how important the remembrance of this day is for him and other survivors.

 

DIGNITY – The Danish Institute Against Torture, Denmark

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To mark the UN International day in Support of Victims of Torture, on June 24, DIGNITY held an event in the Kongens Have park in Copenhagen. Approximately 18.000 people joined the event and enjoyed music, food, drinks and talked with DIGNITY staff. Chinah, L.I.G.A, Kesi, The Eclectic Monkier and the kid-friendly show Pippelipop were among the performers who entertained throughout the day.

 

EATIP – Equipo Argentino de Trabajo e Investigación Psicosocial, Argentina

 • EATIP - Equipo Argentino de Trabajo e Investigación Psicosocial, Argentina

To commemorate 26 June, EATIP ran a clinical athenaeum and hosted a film screening of ‘The Look of Silence’, an Oscar-nominated documentary by Joshua Oppenheimer that examines the perspective of victims of torture, disappearances and Extrajudicial Killings in Indonesia. Afterwards, the centre organised a post-film debate among the participants.

As part of their 26 June activities, EATIPs staff also organised a photo contest ‘Miradas sobre la memoria y la resistencia’ – ‘Views on memories and resistance’, which is currently running for two months and will finish with a photo exhibition open for the public. The objective of this contest is to further commemorate 26 June and the 40th anniversary of the military civic coup in Argentina.

 

Jiyan Foundation for Human Rights, Iraq

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In Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, Jiyan Foundation invited survivors to share their stories with politicians, human rights workers, therapists, lawyers and journalists, at a dinner event. After the dinner, there was a panel discussion, where the participants discussed how survivors could be helped more effectively. A press release in Kurdish, Arabic and English was also published, calling attention to the many people who were tortured by the Saddam regime and need our support.

In Kirkuk, Jiyan Foundation met with the Iraqi Council of Representatives and the Provincial Council to discuss the relevance of the work of the centre, and how civil society as well as the government can support survivors of torture more effectively and cooperate on these issues.

 

SURVIVORS of Torture, International, USA

• SURVIVORS of Torture, International – USA

A photo exhibition featuring SURVIVORS’ clients and the journeys that may take to rebuild their lives, ran throughout all the month of June at La Mesa Library in San Diego, California. SURVIVORS also held a client Healing Club with a drum circle provided by Resounding Joy and its annual Ice Cream Social. This event was an opportunity for the community to come together in solidarity with torture survivors, meet staff, volunteers, and partners, and write letters of hope to the clients detained at the detention centres.

 

STTARTS – Survivors of Torture and Trauma Assitance and Rehabilitation Service Inc, Australia

STTARTS – Survivors of Torture and Trauma Assitance and Rehabilitation Service Inc, Australia

This year, Survivors of Torture and Trauma Assistance and Rehabilitation Services (STTARS) invited Paris Aristotle AM, who is the CEO of the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture, Chair of the Settlement Services Advisory Council and advisor to the Australian Government on refugee and asylum seeker policy, to speak at the “Sustainable Rehabilitation for Survivors and their Communities” event at the University of Australia. At the event, Mr Aristotle spoke about how Australia can respond to the growing humanitarian crisis, which to date has led to the displacement of an estimated 18 million people in Syria alone.

He also reviewed current settlement issues within Australia. In his keynote address, Paris focused upon the most effective ways to “Support Life after Torture”, not only for the intake of 12,000 Syrian/Iraqi refugees displaced as a direct cause of the terrifying war and ongoing conflict within that region, but to highlight concerns for refugees living in Australia.

 

Advocacy Centre for Human Rights, Kenya

Youth in a show of unity to Support Life after Torture during the event to mark 26 June at Kahawa Sukari grounds

In Kenya, to mark 26 June, the Advocacy Centre for Human Rights teamed up with members of a local youth group, police officers from Kahawa Sukari police station, members of the local county commission and the administration police. The event culminated with a social forum, where the local youth group interacted freely with the police and participated in a football match. This was a very positive event as the local police has been accused of a number abuses against members of the community.

During the event dubbed ‘Support Life After Torture’, over 140 youths and 21 police officers gathered at Kahawa Sukari Estate to celebrate Life after Torture in remembrance of victims and survivors of torture, sexual violence, inhumane and degrading  treatment and other related abuse under the police and helped create a common understanding to hold perpetrators accountable through community based advocacy.

 

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Still no justice in the “Wheel of Torture” cases in the Philippines

In February 2014, the world was shocked to learn about the “Wheel of Torture”, a sadistic game being used inside the Philippine National Police Provincial Intelligence Board (PIB), a secret detention compound in Biñan, Laguna Province, Philippines.

The “game” is played when a police officer spins the roulette-style wheel, which lists different methods of torture, to determine which punishment they should receive. These include “30 seconds of hanging” and ”20 seconds of beatings”. The PIB was shut down after a visit from the Commission on Human Rights Region IV Office and more than 40 detainees complained to the authorities that they had been subjected to the Wheel of Torture.

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MAG and the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines using the symbol of the Torture Wheel to raise awareness during an EU project called End Torture in the Philippines. (Courtesy of MAG)

LC is one of the detainees who was tortured for months. Once he was taken to a small hut inside the PIB and forced to drink water contaminated with dog faeces. Another time, two of his toenails were almost taken out with pliers and officers poured alcohol and gasoline over him and threatened to set him on fire. LC says one of the guards was, “looking for a lighter but could not find one at the time.”

RA is another one of the victims. He was beaten with the handle of a dustpan, a piece of wood, a steel baseball bat, a plastic chair and their fists and feet. He was also electrocuted, blindfolded, and repeatedly gagged.

Despite the many complaints and the fact that 25 cases were filed, only four remain pending and no police officers have ever been convicted. IRCT member in the Philippines, the Medical Action Group (MAG) has provided rehabilitation services and legal referrals to many of the torture victims held at the PIB. MAG documented a total of 27 clients out of 41 who were initially interviewed. The others did not want to be documented.

MAG says that it is both sad and disappointing that out of 25 cases, the local human rights office in-charge of the case has filed, only four remain pending. “Some clients have died during the process and some withdrew their complaints and took the side of the alleged perpetrators as a result of threats and intimidation.”

LC is still one of MAG’s clients and continues to suffer from nightmares. He feels extremely angry and upset whenever he thinks about what happened at the PIB, but the scars from his beatings and burns make it hard to forget.

MAG was due to have a meeting with the local human rights office, along with the Central Human Rights Office about the cases in May. However, it was cancelled because of the presidential elections and no new date has been set. “It is all too common that cases like this are never heard and reported. With medical and psychological help and support, we can heal the wounds of the survivors but they may never get back to the place they were before they were tortured. This particular case reminds us that torture can never be justified in any circumstance,” says MAG.

The Philippine Government passed an Anti-Torture law in 2009 but human rights groups say things have been slow to change. However, there is some cause for hope, as on 29 March 2016, a Philippine court made a historic ruling in which a police officer was convicted of torturing a bus driver to confess to crimes he denies he committed. It was the first conviction under the 2009 Anti-Torture Act.

The Philippines is now in a period of transition with newly-elected President Rodrigo Duterte having spoken openly about his hard stance on law and order. The future is unclear for the country but for the victims of the wheel of torture the past cannot be forgotten.

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Why International Day of Action for Women’s Health matters

Since 1987, 28 May has marked International Day of Action for Women’s Health. Today is an opportunity to remind governments and the general public alike that women’s health matters. Many female victims of torture struggle with lifelong physical and mental health problems as a result of their experiences and the type of torture inflicted on them because of their gender. We share the story of NB, a survivor of sexual torture from the Central African Republic, to show that the respect, protection, and fulfillment of the human rights of women and girls, including their sexual and reproductive rights is always worth fighting for.

In March 2013 the Central African Republic (CAR) was in turmoil. The Séléka, an alliance of rebel militia factions had overthrown the government and were starting to target the Christian population, murdering people and ransacking and destroying their houses.

CARCrisis_Flickr

At the time, NB was happily married with four children but after a run in with rebels that were renting a house from her husband, her family suddenly found themselves as targets. They fled their village but NB decided to return to their house to get their identification documents before they left the country for good.

She was captured by Séléka rebels looking for her husband. They beat and repeatedly raped her for several hours. Then they ransacked the house, before leaving her in a state of shock. She eventually made her way to her parents’ house and then joined her husband and children and they fled to Cameroon.

NB is one of the many female victims of sexual violence during the CAR conflict, a time when disorder reigned and rape was used as a weapon. In late 2013 Amnesty International researchers reported that they had spoken to many women in the capital Bangui, who reported having been raped by Seleka soldiers. Most of these women and girls did not want to be interviewed for fear of being identified or stigmatised.

In Cameroon NB tried to make a life for her family, despite receiving no medical or psychological care after her ordeal. Eventually other CAR refugees told her and her family about the Trauma Centre in Cameroon (TCC), a member of the International Rehabilitation Council for Victims of Torture. They were assessed and received psychological services, including individual therapy, group therapy and family therapy.

Even with the much-needed support they got from TCC, NB and her husband struggled to keep their relationship going. Things became even harder when she was diagnosed with HIV, contracted when she was raped. In many cases in countries, such as the CAR and DRC Congo, HIV-positive rape victims are dying because they cannot afford antiretroviral medication.

NB is one of the lucky ones, as she continues to get treatment from TCC. She and her husband are still together and the family is part of an income-generating scheme. As a result can pay their rent, take care of basic needs and their children can go to school. Without it they would struggle to survive.

NB’s story shows there are still many places in the world where basic health services are not available or inaccessible, often affecting women and children the most. The psychological effects of the trauma that sexual violence causes are ignored or gender inequalities make it more difficult for women to access medication for diseases like HIV. Sexual torture affects victims’ health and identity, as well as their relationships with family and friends.

International Day of Action on Women’s Health is a day to remember women like NB. Her story shows that survivors of sexual torture need support to rebuild their lives and that women’s mental and physical health should always be safeguarded.

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Fighting Torture: Q&A with Tika Ram Pokharel

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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?

Tika Ram Pokharel is a Legal Officer at the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO) Nepal, based in the capital Kathmandu. He tells us about how post-conflict Nepal is struggling to overcome a past where torture was commonplace and how many of his clients who receive free legal aid become more aware of their rights and take on the fight for other victims’ rights.

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Tika Ram Pokharel

Q: How long have you worked on torture rehabilitation and human rights?

I have been working on torture rehabilitation and in the human rights sector since 2002.

Q: How did you end up doing this work? Was it something you specifically wanted to do or was it more of a coincidence?

Having observed many injustices in society, I was motivated to study law at college. It was at a time when the Maoist conflict was at its peak, and torture and other human rights violations in custody and prisons were rampant. As a result, the number of cases of torture in Nepal increased dramatically.

After witnessing the ‘real’ practice of law, I was encouraged to work on the rehabilitation of victims of torture. Furthermore, I attended an International Rehabilitation Council for Victims of Torture (IRCT) funded workshop on torture in Nepal in 2002, which increased my desire to work for and with torture victims. Hence, I ended up working as a legal aid lawyer for TPO Nepal.

Q: Tell us about the situation for torture survivors where you are/or in your home country?

Nepal is suffering from a post-conflict situation. At the time of the conflict, from 1996 to 2006, thousands were victims of torture and other human rights violations. Despite government claims that torture has been eradicated since the conflict ended, the reality is that torture has become routine in custody or prisons. Torture has not stopped, the methods have just changed. Even though Nepal is a party of the Convention against Torture (CAT), torture has not been criminalised in the country.

Impunity is rampant and not a single perpetrator has been punished in a case where they were accused of torture. Generally, confessions made by torture victims have been taken as evidence in court. As a result, innocent people have been victims of miscarriages of justice. There is no state provision of rehabilitation for victims of torture nor a national preventive mechanism. Hundreds of thousands of victims still live without reparation and justice.

Q: Can you give us an example of how you have seen your work make a difference?

In the beginning, torture survivors were treated in hospitals like those with medical problems. Survivors didn’t get any legal aid services so cases were not properly documented and they could not access rehabilitation services. Nowadays, the documentation process is hassle-free and we carry out medico-legal documentation in a number of hospitals in Nepal.

This medico-legal documentation helps the survivor seek justice at national and international level, which helps them through their rehabilitation process. TPO Nepal has developed a range of services. Now most survivors know where to go for rehabilitation and other organisations know where to send them. Many survivors receive free legal aid and are more aware and better educated about their rights.

In my experience, at the beginning torture survivors hesitate to speak about their rights. After receiving our services, including psychosocial counselling, they speak without hesitation. Some are ready to fight torture and injustice for the rest of their lives.

Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the torture rehabilitation sector?

The biggest challenge we face is a lack of funding because there is no support from the state. We completely rely on international donors for all funding. Torture survivors are discriminated against by the state and society.  Rehabilitation requires a sufficient budget and it is very challenging to provide services for all torture survivors with such a limited budget.

Furthermore, there is no proper legal provision regarding the rehabilitation of torture survivors and government institutions are always unwilling to support rehabilitation. The court and National Human Rights Commission have already recommended some cases to the government where the survivor should receive compensation but they pay little attention. Most victims come from poor economic backgrounds and many lose their jobs after torture.

Finally, the opinion of the general public is also a challenge, as they think that when the police arrest someone torture is acceptable and they have no sympathy for the victim.

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?

The Nepali government and some of the political parties have said time and again that, “Torture and other human rights are a thing of the past, they should not go to the court”. Ultimately the government and political parties want impunity for perpetrators in Nepal. Yet, torture destroys the personality of the survivor and is directly related to a person’s dignity, hence it cannot be forgotten easily. Torture does not only destroy the life a single person but their entire family and society as well. It creates negative consequences for the entire nation.

Q: What are your hopes for the future?

I do have hopes! The new Nepali constitution, introduced in 2015, declared that torture will be punishable, but a comprehensive law is needed to implement this provision. I hope Nepal will get this law in the near future and rehabilitation and justice will be available for all victims of torture.

If the international community could put pressure on the Nepali government it would help us greatly. Also, we have no support at the national level, so need long-term financial support from the international community so our services can reach all torture survivors.  Lastly, torture is generally accepted by society. People are not aware of psychological torture and its consequences. We need a long-term awareness-raising programme that can change their minds.

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Fighting Torture: Q&A with Svetlana Popa

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In our Fighting Torture series, we speak with people 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?

Svetlana Popa is a psychologist at IRCT member, the Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims “Memoria” in the Republic of Moldova. She explains the challenges facing the rehabilitation sector in Moldova and how many donors want to measure the impact of torture and the profile of perpetrators, forgetting that survivors cannot wait until a policy will be written and made available.

Q: What is your profession and where do you work?

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Svetlana Popa

I am a psychologist and I work as a project assistant at the Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims “Memoria” (RCTV Memoria) in Republic of Moldova.

Q: How long have you worked on torture rehabilitation and human rights?

I have been a part of the anti-torture movement since 2014.

Q: How did you end up doing this work? Was it something you specifically wanted to do or was it more of a coincidence?

I was working as a psychologist and also teaching English at a local school when I heard about a job opening at RCTV Memoria, interpreting for a supervisor psychotherapist. I thought it was an amazing opportunity to combine my two passions – English and psychology. The work the staff members were doing fascinated me, so I decided to stay even after the supervisor psychotherapist had left.

Q: Tell us about the situation for torture survivors where you are/or your home country

There is no justice. No rehabilitation services are provided by the state. Torture victims have no future.

Q: Can you describe a typical day in the office/field for you?

My typical day consists of lots of communication with stakeholders, writing reports, planning events, checking with other staff members on what they do and how can I support them, constantly looking for funds and collecting data and filling in the Data in the Fight Against Impunity (DFI) database. We are one of 32 rehabilitation centres that are part of the DFI project; collecting clinical data and integrating the documentation of torture at all stages of the rehabilitation process.

Q: Can you give us an example of how you have seen your work make a difference?

When, after four sessions, my first client came in smiling for the first time I knew I was doing the right thing.

Q: How has this work changed since you started?

In the last two years the overall situation has stayed the same. Regarding the work we do we started focusing on more creative ways of doing communication and advocacy and I hope it will make the situation better.

Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the torture rehabilitation sector?

A lack of funding; rehabilitation is not supported by state authorities and the majority of donors keep measuring the impact of torture, its methods, and the profile of perpetrators and forget about the survivors who cannot wait until a policy will be written and made available.

Q: What are your hopes for the future?

My personal dream is that rehabilitation will not be necessary because we won’t have any victims of torture to support. Unfortunately this is only a dream, but I hope that someday states will take responsibility for acts of torture that have been committed and will start to provide torture survivors with the rehabilitation they need.

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 a horrible act. It defines the most inhuman act that a person can do and by denying it we won’t make it stop happening. It is only by bearing witness to victims’ sufferings that we can end torture.

Q: And finally, many of us do care about torture survivors and victims. How can we support the anti-torture/torture rehabilitation movement?

Start by getting more information about the rehabilitation movement in your home country, you will find plenty of information online. There are lots of things you can do – visit the rehabilitation centre in your area, volunteer, donate, speak up for victims’ rights, simply care!

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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. We look at some of the most creative approaches used around the world.

1. Football Activity Group

Teamwork, exercise and fun. Three key elements of IRCT member in the UK Freedom from Torture’s Football Activity Group. The group is a joint project between the rehabilitation centre and English football club Arsenal, which uses football as a therapeutic tool.

Torture survivors take part in weekly football training sessions at the Hub – a training pitch right next to Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium. The group complements individual therapy and counseling and, since it began in 2012, has grown from six to 25 members.

“The group is supportive of one another – there are partnerships, friendships, team work and togetherness. Football helps in multiple ways, says Freedom from Torture’s group therapist Selcuk Berilgen says. “It’s great exercise and the confidence in the body, for torture survivors, positively affects the mind too.”

SURVIVORS

Members of the Healing Club exploring San Diego and its surroundings. Courtesy of SURVIVORS

2. Exploring and rebuilding through the Healing Club

At SURVIVORS, San Diego, the centre has been running a Healing Club for ten years, inspired by fellow IRCT member the Program for Torture Victims of Los Angeles. Many of SURVIVOR’S clients feel isolated, do not speak English and are new to the city. That is where the Healing Club comes in.

Niki Kalmus, SURVIVORS’ Community Relations Manager explains that, “The rationale behind the Healing Club is that many of our clients come from collective societies, so it’s a great fit culturally. People can learn from one another on so many levels. Those that have been at SURVIVORS for less time can see clients who have been there longer and feel hopeful that they too can continue to heal and rebuild their lives.”

Through the Healing Club, torture victims have gone on walking tours, visited a meditation garden, gone to the beach, had tea parties and seen musicals. “We take advantage of the weather and tend to do outdoor adventures as the healing power of nature is extremely powerful. The Healing Club is rather unconventional when it comes to typical mental health options in the United States,” says Niki.

“We’ve taken therapeutic concepts from other countries and cultures and brought them here to San Diego, and we’ve seen a huge success. It’s also a bridge to other services for some clients. They start out only going to the Healing Club and then when they see our availability, accessibility, and the values we put into action around trust building, confidentiality, interpreters, etc. they gradually become more open to exploring individual therapy or psychiatry.”

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Theatre performers from VITO-CIR. Photographer: Sergio Vasselli

3. Psychosocial rehabilitation at the theatre

The use of dance and music has long been recognised as a powerful way for people from all walks of life to express themselves. Italian IRCT member, Hospitality and Care for Victims of Torture harnesses this power in its psychosocial rehabilitation theatre workshops.

Together with the Italian Council for Refugees, the centre gives refugees the chance to work with theatre professionals to develop performances around topics such as birth, violence and torture in conflict zones. The group then perform for the public every 26 June, which is the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, attracting audiences of up to 400 people.

These workshops and performances give torture survivors a platform to deal with their trauma in a more creative way. All while raising awareness among the public.

4. Involving the entire community through testimonial therapy

Supporting torture survivors in telling their stories has long been recognised as an important element of rehabilitation. In India, among other countries, rehabilitation providers have been working with Testimonial Therapy, a human rights-based psychosocial intervention, which can be used by non-professional counselors and focuses on involving the entire community.

The survivors tell their story, which is recorded and jointly edited by a counselor, a note taker and the survivors themselves. The story is then presented to the survivors in a testimony ceremony, where they are honoured in front of their community.

The ceremony in the community marks the turning point in the healing process, where the person makes the transition from the role of torture victim, to an empowered and recognised survivor of torture. If the survivors feel comfortable with it, their story will then be used as part of awareness-raising and advocacy activities.

“Before testimony [therapy] victims feel lonely and they do not tell their pain to anybody… But after testimony therapy I [put] outside my pain and share my story to encourage others. It is [a] very good process to give honour in front of [the] community and I feel that I have [got] my own dignity,” said one participant.

 5. Using the circus to reconnect with your body

“For me it was like being with my sisters again, there were women laughing, having fun, exercising. We shared lunch and talked about our countries and background.”

Jaw dropping stunts and eye-catching acts are what makes a circus great, but for torture survivor Katie, circus performance has also been a method of rehabilitation. The ‘Body Movement Reconnect’ programme is a joint initiative between Australian IRCT member Survivors of Torture and Trauma Assistance and Rehabilitation Services (STTARS) and the group Uniting Care Wesley Bowden.

Trainers from the South Australian Circus Company work with female survivors of torture body awareness to develop social connections, improve fitness and build self-esteem to reduce the impact of chronic pain.

The group participates in a range of circus activities accompanied by therapy and group counseling for six months. After her circus training Katie felt reinvented, “It always felt like a safe space and I knew the women there understood me and I understood them. I am a strong Afghani woman, and that makes me feel proud.”

 

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Defending human rights in Chechnya

Defending human rights in Russian republic Chechnya is not without its risks. Local IRCT member the Committee to Prevent Torture has been the target of endless acts of violence, discrimination and harassment because of its anti-torture work. Just last month, a group of journalists and a couple of the Committee’s staff were beaten up by masked men and the organisation’s offices were broken into. Despite international human rights organisations calling for a proper investigation, the perpetrators are yet to be brought to justice.

Speaking up against human rights violations in Russia comes at a price most people are not willing to pay. Non-governmental organisations critical of the government are being targeted and persecuted on a regular basis. International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) member and local NGO, Committee to Prevent Torture (CPT), has had its office in the Chechen capital, Grozny set on fire and broken in to, while its staff and founder are repeatedly harassed and intimidated.

Last month’s brutal attack on CPT staff and a small group of journalists, investigating human rights abuses in the region, attracted the attention of rights groups and media outlets around the world. According to the IRCT, these attacks reflect a reality where human rights defenders and journalists are systematically targeted because of their work.

Offices have been raided, activists have been arrested and organisations fined. In some cases, prominent human rights defenders have even been killed, with no one charged with their murders.

This level of impunity in not only Chechnya, but all of Russia is of great concern to local and international rights organisations. In its periodic review of Russia, the United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) brought up reports from several non-governmental organisations of the widespread practice of torture in Russia and the lack of genuine efforts by the government to investigate the vast number of allegations of such crimes.

Vladimir Putin and Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov. Courtesy of Vladimir Varfolomeev via Flickr Creative Commons

Vladimir Putin and Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov. Courtesy of Vladimir Varfolomeev via Flickr Creative Commons

In Chechnya, the perpetrators of the attacks against CPT and the journalists are still free despite the spokesperson of President Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Peskov, calling the attacks “absolutely outrageous” and encouraging local law enforcement to “take the most effective measures to find the perpetrators, in order to ensure the safety of human rights defenders and journalists”. But even with Moscow condemning the attacks, there is nothing to indicate that they will stop.

In an interview with The Guardian, the leader of the organisation Igor Kalyapin said: “We won’t have anyone staying the night in Chechnya any more, it’s clearly too dangerous. If they can attack me, a member of the president’s human rights council, outside the poshest hotel in the city, then it’s clear that there are no limits. But we can’t pull out altogether. We all have to take a risk. There is no choice. We have two or three court hearings a week there. As long as people want our help there, we will have a presence there.”

The events of last month make it clear that the public need organisations like CPT to continue their work in a country where human rights violations are widespread.

The Committee to Prevent Torture is currently one of more than a hundred Russian NGOs that have been labelled as a ‘foreign agent’ by the government. In 2012, the Russian parliament adopted the law, requiring NGOs to register as “foreign agents” if they engaged in “political activity” and received foreign funding. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), in Russia “foreign agent” can be interpreted only as “spy” or “traitor,” and there is little doubt that the law aims to demonise and marginalise independent advocacy groups. Groups that a court has found responsible for failing to register as a “foreign agent” may be fined up to 500,000 rubles (over US$16,000), and their leaders personally – up to 300,000 rubles (approximately $10,000).

(Source: Human Rights Watch)

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OMEGA: Celebrating 20 years of torture rehabilitation work in Austria amid Europe’s refugee crisis

“We see ourselves as a bridge between the current need for support and the sustainable integration of refugees and migrants into our society. Our main responsibility is to improve the mental and physical health of migrants and refugees, as well as their social and economic integration into the host society.”

This is how CEO Dr. Emir Kuljuh describes Austrian rehabilitation centre Omega – Transcultural Centre for mental and physical Health and Integration. Based in the city of Graz, Omega has been treating victims of torture for the past 20 years. Its focus is on health and follows the World Health Organization’s (WHO) definition that, ‘health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’.

“Torture is one of the most distressing and psychologically annihilating expressions of human conduct. Torture is a phenomenon, which dehumanises its victims, leaving them with serious and lasting psychological and physical wounds. It poses a serious obstacle to the advancement of human rights, including civil and socioeconomic rights,” says Emir Kuljuh.

Covering all these aspects, the centre offers a range of services including medical treatment, psychological, psychiatric, psychosocial and psychotherapeutic counselling, social work, integration assistance, outreach and mobile care in refugee and emergency shelters.

Staff from Omega

Staff from Omega

Since treating 144 clients in its first year, the demand for Omega’s services has drastically increased and the centre now provides treatment to more than 1,600 people a year.

“Our target group is people with different residence permit status, such as asylum seekers, persons with subsidiary protection and immigrants with a permanent resident permit. We dedicate particular attention to women, young people, victims of torture and to unaccompanied minor asylum seekers,” explains Emir Kuljuh.

Austria has seen a rapid increase in refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in the past year. The country received 85,500 applications for asylum in 2015. This is the third highest number of applications per capita in Europe after Hungary and Sweden and has resulted in the authorities adopting a new and tougher approach to border control.

The influx of refugees and asylum seekers, however, has not led to more treatment options for traumatised refugees. Austria is facing challenges of providing care and support to this group with Omega being one of just a few torture rehabilitation centres in the country. Emir Kuljuh points to the fact that there are guidelines for the reception of asylum seekers including recommendations concerning persons who are torture survivors, but that European member states, including Austria, are failing to implement them.

“Existing structures and organisations need to be strengthened to be able to provide quality care to more victims of torture and their families. We hope that sufficient care and support will be provided to survivors of torture, even though the situation in Austria and other partner countries is challenging.”

He says that despite international law prohibiting the use of torture, it continues to be widespread. This makes Omega’s work even more important. If it can assist clients in overcoming their trauma, which will allow them to function on a daily basis, that is a job well done.

“The lower socio-economic status of many of our clients coupled with unsatisfactory housing conditions, restrictions on access to employment and training opportunities have a negative impact on their health and wellbeing. Our goal is to promote self-reliance so that they can access the Austrian health, education, labour market and social assistance independently.”

Omega celebrated its 20th anniversary on 9 December last year. To find out more about Omega you can visit their website: http://www.omega-graz.at/ 

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Centre visit: ACTV in Kampala

Situated in the hills of Kampala, Ugandan rehabilitation centre African Centre for Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims (ACTV) provides a much-needed sanctuary for almost a hundred torture victims every week. A pioneering provider of rehabilitation services to torture survivors in Uganda, the centre is the only organisation in the country to offer such services. On a typically busy day in January, the staff spoke with us about their work and passion for human rights.

The clients coming through ACTV’s doors are as varied as the services provided by the centre. According to the centre’s leader/director, Samuel Nsubuga, 30 percent of the clients are refugees from neighbouring countries, while the remaining 70 percent are Ugandans who have been subjected to torture by security agencies, such as the army, police force, city council authorities or by rebel groups.

“With torture you never know if you could be next because of the instability in the region, says ACTV’s Programme Manager, Bamulangeyo Michael. “Now, because of the Ugandan elections, we are seeing an increase in violence,” he explains.

There are 25 full-time staff and approximately 15 volunteers who provide everything from medical to psychological to legal support to survivors of torture. There are lots of challenges in delivering services and not all those in need of services can make it to the centre. ACTV supports them through other channels that include community outreach and home visits. Staff also regularly go to prisons to see inmates, many of whom have been beaten by police before being thrown in prison.

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A peaceful procession through the streets of Kampala was the grand finale of ACTV’s 26 June celebration in 2015

Having seen the effects of torture first-hand, ACTV is a strong advocate for the prevention of torture and provision of services to survivors of torture. The centre is also working towards increasing awareness among security agencies and the public about torture and its consequences through trainings and workshops.

“We work closely with the Ugandan Government to stop torture and we also work in coalition with other NGOs, which strengthens our centre,” says Bamulangeyo Michael.

To understand that torture is very much still a problem in Uganda, one only needs to look at the long waiting lists that are an ongoing challenge the centre faces.

“We are the only place in Uganda that treats victims of torture and there is a great need for more centres,” says the centre’s Medical Doctor Dr. Lubega Ronarld.

He points to the fact that there are only 40 ACTV staff, and a demand for services and support that far outstrip the ability to provide them. The level of services available seems shockingly inadequate to most people. To do something about this, the centre is training hospital staff, but this comes with challenges of its own.

“We organise trainings for doctors working in hospitals. The hospitals are keen to learn, but they are often overwhelmed. It is a matter of funds and resources.”

Despite challenges like these, the staff can see how their work makes a huge difference in the lives of torture victims, and they agree that the work of ACTV is vital.

And just as importantly, it is changing the lives of the staff, as Bamulangeyo Michael puts it: “Torture was something in human rights that I became interested in. I didn’t know much about it, but now I’ve found my true calling.”

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Fighting Torture: Q&A with Andrés Gautier

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In our Fighting Torture series, we speak with people 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?

Up next in the series is Andrés Gautier, the co-founder of the Institute for Research and Therapy of Torture Sequels and State Violence (ITEI) in Bolivia. Andrés speaks about making the transition from working in a private practice to a rehabilitation centre and how torture not only affects the victim but also their family and the entire community.

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Andrés Gautier

Q: What is your profession and where do you work?

I am a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst at the Institute for Research and Therapy of Torture Sequels and State Violence in Bolivia (ITEI).

Q: How long have you worked in torture rehabilitation and human rights?

Since 2001, so for 15 years.

Q: How did you end up doing this work?

I was working as a psychotherapist in a private practice in Switzerland and met and married a Bolivian refugee who is a psychologist. We had planned to go to Bolivia and happened to go to a seminar where there was a psychotherapist from the Service for Social Rehabilitation (SERSOC) in Uruguay, who spoke about the work they were doing with torture victims. We thought it made sense to run a similar project in Bolivia so looked into if a centre already existed. It didn’t, so we went back and founded one in 2001.

Torture is related to society. When I was a psychotherapist in Switzerland I was focused on individual harm, but working with torture victims is about social harm. When working with torture victims you are involved in society in a way you are never involved when you are working in a private setting. This can make some colleagues afraid. For me it is a fascinating situation. You have to go out from your private practice. You have to make denunciations and announcements and speak out against injustice.

Q: Tell us about the situation for torture survivors where you are/area you are involved with or your home country?

When we founded the centre, most of our friends said torture is from the past, we’re a democracy now. But the reality is different. We had to treat victims of the dictatorship which ended in 1982. On the other side, the tradition of torture and ill treatment by the police and army has remained. The mentality remained. Nowadays torture is increasing.

It is recognised that there are flaws in the Justice system, but no action is taken and torture is routinely used to get a confession. There’s seldom use of scientific investigation methods, merely force. The presumption of innocence is seldom respected, so as soon as someone is detained they are exposed to ill treatment. It is also becoming more frequent for the police to demand a bribe, saying they will torture you if you don’t pay.

Q: What is a typical day in the office/field for you?

Life is unpredictable in Bolivia but my appointments with clients help to set some kind of routine that I try to keep, even though it is difficult. When I am in the office I have three to four appointments with clients each day. I also visit several prisons regularly. Every Monday I go to the prison for men and every Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon I visit the women’s prison and see three to five clients.

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?

It is an illusion to think that torture is something that can be forgotten. When there is one incident you can be sure that it is not isolated. The tendency to torture is there, it is contagious, like gangrene.

The torture victims are affected and their families are affected. Also the perpetrator, they become ill and develop sadistic tendencies. So the state becomes the first producer of delinquency.

Q: And finally, many of us do care about torture survivors and victims. How can we support the anti-torture/torture rehabilitation movement?

These people are very important because they have the courage not to look away. These people are conscious of society. As one concentration camp survivor said, “It is not I that is ill, it is society that is ill”. When people support organisations like Amnesty International and the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) financially or by being ready to hear and share what is happening this is important because the perpetrators or state want silence.

To break and sustain this broken silence is very important. We are very grateful to these people who feel solidarity with us.

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