Posts Tagged International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims

Collecting data to achieve justice for torture victims

“Working with survivors and families of victims of torture is not an easy task. Listening to survivors recount painful, dehumanising and degrading memories of torture in the hands of the government invokes a hunger and drive to keep fighting for the rights of the underserved.”

Hilda Nyatete from Kenyan rehabilitation centre IMLU 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, Hilda writes about the importance of comprehensive clinical documentation and the IRCT’s Data in the Fight against Impunity (DFI) project, which she believes can help victims in their pursuit of justice.

(From Hilton Prize Coalition, by Hilda Nyatete)

My work at the Independent Medico Legal Unit (IMLU) revolves around ensuring that victims of torture and their families receive psychological support both at the individual and group level. IMLU has been a member of the IRCT for many years, and has become the premier organisation supporting victims of torture in Kenya. It supports an average of 500 victims of torture annually.

One of the challenges my team constantly has to tackle is the victim’s fear, which often leads to a low level or a complete lack of cooperation when reporting cases of torture. This is due to intimidation by the perpetrators, who not only deny any accusations of wrongdoing but may also put forward fabricated charges against the victims, which piles onto their fear. The fear and intimidation have caused us to be very intentional in involving clients throughout the process of reporting, entering data about their case from intake, during service provision, and until the client is released from active medical support and counseling; that way, the clients understand the critical role their information plays in allowing them to achieve justice.

Participants from different organisations working on clinical documentation under the DFI project

With 25% of cases going to court, IMLU works with a network of professionals who provide critical documentation of torture and ill treatment in legal proceedings. These evaluations and subsequent documentation take place all over the country. The purpose of the medical and psychological evaluation is twofold: to provide an expert opinion on the degree to which findings correlate with the alleged victim’s allegation of torture, and to effectively communicate the clinician’s findings and interpretations to the judiciary or other appropriate authorities. It is key that clinical documentation is done diligently and in a clear and concise manner to ensure that justice is served.

To face the challenges of threats, intimidation, and a tedious documentation process, IMLU developed a database system which was officially launched in 2015. The system goes beyond data entry about the clients’ respective cases, enabling the staff to manage individual and group calendars and diaries; that way, those who work with clients but do not engage with data entry on a daily basis still find it useful. My work as a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellow has revolved around continually engaging staff in this comprehensive clinical documentation, as well as supporting other organisations in the process, which ultimately serves to enable victims to achieve justice.

It remains paramount that organisations such as IMLU collect and document data on these human rights violations. During my Fellowship, I had the opportunity to travel to Mexico City for the IRCT’s 10th International Scientific Symposium in December 2016. I met colleagues from various organisations who are also working at IRCT member centers and participating in the Data in the Fight Against Impunity Project, who are just beginning to establish their own database system. Sharing my experience of how the IMLU system has made our work easier while ensuring that clients are involved in documentation, was exciting and meaningful. Little did I think that the work we were doing at IMLU would be of such great impact to colleagues in the sector. Being a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellow has given me a boost of confidence and allowed me to learn a great deal not only in matters of clinical documentation but on leadership, networking, and quite a bit on humanitarian work. I am truly grateful to have been accorded this wonderful platform and opportunity to learn, grow, and to contribute to the common good.

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.

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Purge and persecution in Turkey

Last month, the Turkish government fired some 4,500 court clerks, librarians and computer experts considered “dangers to the state”. The move, which is part of the government’s ongoing crackdown on alleged coup sympathisers, takes the number of public servants who have been dismissed to around 125,000. Adding to this, more than 40,000 people have been arrested since last year’s failed coup, while reports of torture and ill treatment have become commonplace in a country where respect for human rights and freedom of speech has been put aside.

Among the people who have been arrested since the attempted coup is Professor Sebnem Korur Fincanci who is the President of IRCT member centre Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (HRFT). Dr Fincanci was arrested in June 2016, along with two other prominent human rights defenders, Erol Önderoğlu and Ahmet Nesin, for taking part in a solidarity campaign to defend the independence of the newspaper Ozgur Gundem – a paper that is often critical of the government and aligned with Turkey’s Kurdish minority.

While international pressure helped secure their release 10 days after the arrest, the three human rights defenders are still facing charges under the country’s Anti Terror Law, pending an investigation into their alleged involvement in terrorist propaganda. If found guilty they could face up to 14 years in jail.

It is not difficult to see why President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his government consider Dr Fincanci a threat. A leading figure in the anti-torture movement, she was one of the contributors to the development of the United Nations reference standards on the investigation and documentation of torture (the Istanbul Protocol) and she has conducted endless forensic investigations to expose torture in Turkey as well as other countries. All of these are achievements not appreciated by the government.

Sebnem Korur Fincanci.

Now, with the government ramping up its crackdown, the number of cases of alleged torture and ill treatment in police detention has also increased. Speaking to a journalist from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, one woman explained how she was taking care of 13 people after all the men in the family had been arrested. Some of them had been tortured while in detention with one documenting the police beatings in a statement:

“They beat me on the soles of my feet, on my stomach, then squeezed my testicles, saying they would castrate me,”

Another man told the journalist about the torture that his 66-year-old father had endured while in prison. This included having his toenails pulled out.

Despite international outcry and condemnation, Turkey continues to tighten its grip and those who provide rehabilitation services to torture victims or help them with the forensic documentation of their cases continue to be seen as “dangers to the state”.

Several HRFT staff targeted

Dr Fincanci is far from the only HRFT staff who has been targeted by the Turkish authorities because of her anti-torture work. Other colleagues have also been arrested or dismissed from their public duties and in 2015, HRFT itself was fined approximately 30.000 EUR in connection with its work to support torture victims from the anti-government protests.

One of the staff targeted by the authorities is Dr Serdar Küni who was arrested on 19 October last year for no apparent reason and has been detained in Şırnak Prison since then. His first court hearing took place on 13 March, but Dr Küni was not released. Instead he is still in custody, waiting for his next hearing to take place on 24 April.

As for Dr Fincanci, Önderoğlu and Nesin, their trial has been postponed twice already, but a new court date has been set for next week. At the last hearing, Director of Governance and Policy at the IRCT, Miriam Reventlow made it clear that there is strong international support for all the human rights defenders currently on trial: “The IRCT, as part of the global movement for the rehabilitation of torture victims, continues to stand with Dr Fincanci, her family and other colleagues in solidarity and support at this challenging time.”

Dr Fincanci herself is despondent about the situation in Turkey and her pending trial:

“It is really one of the most difficult times for Turkey in any way. Torture is now common in detention centres, and conditions in prisons worsen every day,” she says. “As for my trial, we can never be sure, because this is also a period of unpredictability. Nevertheless, we are starting to see convictions in similar cases, such as postponed imprisonment of one year and three months and fines of 6000 Turkish Lira.”

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Capturing the stories of torture victims

“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.

Barbara Giovanelli

Barbara Giovanelli

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.

Torture victim in Kenya.

Torture victim in Kenya.

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.

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Triumphing over adversity to deliver rehabilitation to those in need in Iraq

“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.

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Salah Ahmad With Kids in Chamchamal (Courtesy of Jiyan Foundation for Human Rights via Flickr creative commons licence)

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.

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(Courtesy of Jiyan Foundation for Human Rights via Flickr creative commons licence)

“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.”

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Delivering aid to IDPs who escaped the Sinjar region. (Courtesy of Jiyan Foundation for Human Rights via Flickr creative commons licence)

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.

 

Jiyan Foundation is a member of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims. For more information visit their website www.jiyan-foundation.org or follow them on Facebook.

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On a mission to document torture

Across the globe there are many human rights defenders and organisations whose work has made an enormous difference to the fight against torture – yet we know very little about them and what they do. One such group is the Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG), which consists of 35 of the world’s most eminent experts in the documentation and investigation of torture. Coming from 18 different countries, these experts have varied backgrounds ranging from forensic pathologists to clinical psychologists.

The objective of the IFEG is to use its members’ expertise as doctors, psychologist and psychiatrists to document and investigate torture and to secure justice for victims. As part of their work they go on documentation missions around the world, conducting physical and psychological evaluations of alleged torture victims. They also train health and legal professionals in how to document torture and help raise awareness among the public.

Dastan Salehi from the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) recently spent a week with IFEG members Dr Maximo Alberto Duque Piedrahita and Dr Ana Deutsch on a mission in the Bolivian capital of La Paz. We asked Dastan to document the mission and as his pictures show, the work of the IFEG can take many different forms.

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Dr Duque (left) and Dr Deutsch (right) spent one week in La Paz, Bolivia on a documentation mission, conducting physical and psychological evaluation on three people who allege they were subjected to torture in Bolivia. 

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Documentation missions are the bread and butter of the IFEG’s work. In a nutshell, they feature two IFEG experts (one medical doctor and one psychologist or psychiatrist) who travel to a particular country to conduct examinations on people who allege they have been tortured. This examination results in what is known as a ‘medico-legal report’, which seeks to medically and psychologically assess the correlation of the physical and psychological scars with the allegations of torture.

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While in La Paz, the two experts delivered a workshop on the Istanbul Protocol, the key international instrument on the investigation and documentation of torture and ill-treatment. The workshop, which was hosted by local rehabilitation centre Instituto de Terapia y Investigacion (ITEI), looked at ways to improve effective documentation of torture and the obligations of health professionals to document and report cases of torture independently.

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During the mission, the IFEG experts spent time with ITEI to share experiences and best practices and to discuss how they can best work together in the future to document torture. 

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The IFEG’s visit caught the attention of several local media outlets, which were all keen to interview them. In this one, Dr Duque appears alongside Andres Gautier, Lead Psychologist at ITEI, on the television programme Claroscuro con Angel Careaga to discuss the situation of torture in Bolivia and Latin America. 

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Dr Duque also met with journalists from Agencia de Noticias Fides Bolivia and was interviewed on Radio PanAmericana Bolivia to share his views on the situation in Bolivia, as well as to discuss the importance of the Istanbul Protocol. 

Going on mission with the IFEG experts, Dastan Salehi quickly realised just how important their work is to the anti-torture movement and torture victims around the world.

“It was really inspiring to see Ana and Maximo at work. The way they spoke to and interacted with the victims and their families was just phenomenal. They didn’t treat them as just a case. They built rapport, shared and collaborated with them as people, and that was quite special.”

Each IFEG mission leaves behind a legacy of learning and inspiration, despite the difficult nature of the expert’s work; this was no different in La Paz.

A big thank you to Dastan for sharing his pictures with us. To find out more about the work of the IFEG click here.

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The Alternative Nobel Prize: Rewarding human rights defenders for 36 years

We’ve spoken with Ole von Uexküll who is the Executive Director of Swedish organisation the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, which each year supports a number of individuals and organisations through its award.

Established in 1980 by journalist and professional philatelist Jakob von Uexkull, the Right Livelihood Award aims to promote scientific research, education, public understanding and practical activities, which contribute to eliminating poverty and ensuring lasting peace and justice in the world.

The IRCT became a laureate in 1988, when it received the award for helping torture victims restore their lives and regain their health.

As the Executive Director of the organisation, Ole von Uexküll’s job is to lead and coordinate the work of the Foundation, which is headquartered in the Swedish capital of Stockholm, with an office in Geneva, Switzerland.

Ole von Uexkull

Ole von Uexkull

WWT: Can you tell us a bit about the Foundation and what its purpose is?

OvU: The Right Livelihood Award Foundation is a charity registered in Sweden. The Foundation’s principal purpose is to bestow the Right Livelihood Awards. Today, there are 162 Laureates from 67 countries. Yet, the support from the Foundation goes far beyond the prize. The Foundation invests a lot in press work and communication on behalf of its recipients – former and current Laureates. It also seeks to help protect and support Award Recipients who are at risk. In 2014, for instance, it organised a solidarity mission to Gaza to protest against the restrictions that 2013 Laureate Raji Sourani and his colleagues at the Palestinian Center for Human Rights face in exercising their fundamental freedoms and human rights in the Gaza Strip.

The Foundation tries to directly strengthen the network of its Laureates, whenever possible, through events, joint statements and petitions. Anniversary meetings, regional conferences and seminars, as well as cooperative events with other institutions, where Laureates are invited to their events, have become an important aspect of the Foundation’s network building and outreach work.

With the inauguration of the Right Livelihood College in 2009, the Foundation also furthered its work in capacity building and in making its Laureates’ knowledge more accessible.

WWT: What exactly does your role as Executive Director of the Right Livelihood Award Foundation consist of?

OvU: My main tasks are strategy development, representation, financial management and research. I have evaluated candidates for the Right Livelihood Award in more than 35 countries around the globe.

WWT: The IRCT received the award in 1988. Do you think the fight against torture is as relevant today as back then?

OvU: Absolutely. Torture continues to be a global scourge across many parts of the world, particularly in the context of the “war on terror” and other international and national conflicts. There remains a need for institutions dedicated to outlawing torture, monitoring state commitments to renounce torture, and working with torture victims to provide them with legal, medical and psychosocial support.

WWT: You recently organised a seminar/debate at the Swedish political forum Almedalen on ‘Life After Torture’. Why did you chose this issue?

OvU: We felt that it was important for Swedish policy-makers to be informed about the unfortunate reality that torture remains a global problem, and together with our Laureate, the IRCT, we wanted to highlight the importance of working with torture victims to rebuild their lives. We wanted to use this forum to make the case that the important and innovative work that the IRCT and its partners are doing should be supported by governments as part of their efforts to promote human rights, development and the rule of law.

WWT: What has been the response so far?

OvU: We had a high number of participants in the seminar and some very good discussions during and after the seminar. In this regard, we are pleased to have put the issue of rehabilitation of torture victims in the realm of public debate in Sweden and will continue to work with the IRCT to inform people about their work.

WWT: What do you look for when finding new laureates?

OvU: We look closely at not only the overall impact of the individual or organisation, but also whether the approach they use is pioneering. It is also important for us to see that the candidate’s life and work is a good example of ‘Right Livelihood’, i.e. living responsibly with a high degree of integrity. The typical Laureate is a courageous individual or organisation who has changed the “rules of the game” in a particular field, and has also demonstrated a practical solution to a global problem. Typical Laureates are role models; their work is transformational and they contribute to securing a just and sustainable world for future generations.

WWT: In addition to the monetary aspect of the prize, the Foundation also seeks to help protect and support those Award Recipients who are at risk. Why do you think this element of the prize is important?

OvU: For us, presenting the Award is the beginning of a life-long relationship we seek to have with Laureates, and we strive to continue to support their work as best as we can. We have estimated that one fifth of all our Laureates have been threatened because their work challenges powerful government and corporate interests. Since 2012, our protection programme, through solidarity visits, UN advocacy and strategic initiatives, has provided a degree of additional protection to our Laureates and strengthened their position in their country.

Additionally, we support our Laureates by giving them opportunities to meet each other at regional conferences, by sharing their achievements through our press and communications work, and by linking them to academic institutions through the Right Livelihood College – our university network with eight campuses on five continents. Several Laureates have observed that the solidarity provided by the Foundation and network of Laureates gives them the strength and confidence to continue persevering with their important work.

 

You can find out more about the Right Livelihood Award Foundation and its laureates by visiting its website.

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Transit and trauma: Supporting refugees in Serbia

Late last year – as hundreds of thousands of refugees were passing through Serbia on their way to Western Europe – we spoke to Bojana Trivuncic, a psychologist and project manager at local rehabilitation centre International Aid Network (IAN), about helping refugees arriving in the country. At the time of the interview, IAN was the only organisation providing psychological support to refugees transiting the country. Now, 10 months on, we have caught up with Bojana to find out if the situation has changed and if IAN is still reaching out to refugees through its mobile team unit.

WWT: When we last spoke, your centre was providing medical first aid and psychological support to refugees in parks and shelters. Are you still doing this?

BT: Yes, we still provide these services in the parks near the bus station in Belgrade. Unfortunately, we have fewer resources now than last year. Since April this year we’ve only received emergency funds from the UNVFVT [United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture], allowing us to only work once a week.

WTT: We are so sorry to hear that. Are you still using the mobile unit despite lack of funding?

BT: Yes, the weekly visits are through our mobile team. The team consists of a medical doctor, a nurse and a psychologist. The nurse also acts as an interpreter because she speaks fluent Arabic. Sometimes we also have a Dari interpreter, but we don’t have enough funds to finance two interpreters for every visit.

WWT: It sounds like the lack of funding really has affected your work with refugees.

BT: Yes it has. We aren’t travelling to the north where we used to work due to lack of funds, but there is still a great need for our services in the parks in Belgrade.

Refugees in Belgrade (Courtesy of International Aid Network)

Refugees in Belgrade (Courtesy of International Aid Network)

WWT: The issue of refugees traveling through Europe is no longer front page news. Now the focus is on those who have made it to countries like Germany etc. What is the situation like for refugees in Serbia?

BT: The closure of the borders didn’t stop the refugees’ transit through Serbia towards the EU countries. However, their journey has become more difficult and uncertain, given that most of them decided to reach their destination with the help of people smugglers. I don’t know the exact number of refugees who are currently in Serbia, but approximately more than 2000 refugees or migrants are here, mostly waiting to go to Western Europe. Many of them pay smugglers to illegally cross the Hungarian border, but many of them have been ‘pushed back’ to Serbia from Hungary. In June, the number of refugees allowed to start the asylum procedure in Hungary was reduced to 15 per day at each border crossing. This means that many refugees are trying to enter the EU illegally with the ‘help’ of smugglers.

WWT: Where are the refugees coming from and do they talk about why they are fleeing their countries?

BT: In the parks, the majority are from Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Morocco, etc. They are fleeing armed conflicts, terrorist attacks or looking for a better life. There are also refugees from Syria and Iraq fleeing war.

WWT: Have any of them been tortured or ill-treated?

BT: There are torture victims who have been tortured in the country of origin, but many of them have also been tortured in transit countries such as Bulgaria and in Hungary. Some of them, when illegally crossing the border to Hungary, have been beaten and returned to Serbia.

WWT: What kind of physical and mental condition are they in?

BT: Their health problems are acute mostly. During the warm weather, they had stomach problems such as diarrhoea. They also suffer from skin infections, pain in their legs and body, allergies, insect bites, etc. When we talk about mental problems, they usually focus on their last experience, which is often something bad, like a bad experience with smugglers or authorities in transit countries. They want to share with us their thoughts, feelings and their stories.

WWT: I can only imagine that they must feel incredible frustrated. Are they still hopeful of a better life?

BT: Well, they are frustrated because they can’t cross the border legally and only a small number of people per day is allowed to start the asylum procedure in Hungary. One month ago a group of 100 refugees demonstrated and walked from Belgrade to the north of Serbia, close to the border to demonstrate and show their frustration with the fact that they cannot cross the border to Hungary.

Refugees awaiting registration in Presevo, Serbia (Courtesy of Johannes Grunert used via Flickr creative commons license)

Refugees awaiting registration in Presevo, Serbia (Courtesy of Johannes Grunert used via Flickr creative commons license)

WWT: You no longer travel to the border, but are you able to tell us what the situation is like there?

BT: The situation there is very bad. The refugees, including women and small children, live in tents in open air, in unhygienic conditions, close to one of the two so called “transit zones”, waiting to be allowed access to the asylum procedure in Hungary.

WWT: Previously you said the Serbian public generally had a positive reaction to the refugees. Do you think that is still the case?

BT: The issue of refugees is no longer front page news in Serbia like it isn’t in other European countries. In these parks where we operate, people are generally friendly towards migrants, or at least indifferent.

WWT: What about the Serbian government. Has it changed its stance on refugees?

BT: The borders with Macedonia and Bulgaria are still very much controlled by our authorities in order to prevent refugees crossing illegally. Since the law on asylum was established in 2008, 30 refugees have been granted asylum and 40 subsidiary protections in Serbia. In the first half of 2016, eight refugees have been granted asylum in Serbia and 14 refugees have been granted subsidiary protection. So the number is increasing and that is a good thing, but still the asylum procedures are very slow, and the integration programme is not very efficient. There is an absence of regulations facilitating integration of refugees.

WWT: Finally, is there a particular person or family whose story really affected you or was especially powerful?

BT: There are so many young boys who have left their families – so full of hope that they will find a better life somewhere in Europe and that they will be able to help their loved ones in their home country. For me it is very sad to know that they have such an uncertain future ahead of them and are not aware of it. They have been travelling for months. One boy was pushed back four times from the Hungarian border, one of the times he was beaten, and still he believes that something good is waiting for him in some European country… he is not giving up… it is so brave and so sad at the same time.

 

We would like to thank Bojana for taking her time to speak with us. You can find out more about IAN and the work they carry out by visiting their website.

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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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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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Ruling indicates denial of human rights obligations in Thailand

Despite suffering arrest, beatings and forced push-ups on the burning hot concrete of a Thai military camp, Hasan Useng is not entitled to remedies and reparations for this torture.

That’s the ruling made by a Provincial Court in Thailand on 7 October 2014, one which received condemnation from the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Thai policemen stand guard during a demonstration by an anti-coup protester at a shopping mall in Bangkok on June 22, 2014. © AFP/Getty Images

Thai policemen stand guard during a demonstration by an anti-coup protester at a shopping mall in Bangkok on June 22, 2014.
© AFP/Getty Images

Reporting on the case, Amnesty International explain the ruling was made to prevent remedy to Hasan Useng because the military coup in May 2014 annuls Thailand’s Constitution, specifically Article 32 which assures reparations for victims of torture.

It is not the allegations which are necessarily disputed. It has been well-documented that Hasan Useng was arrested at his house in Narathiwat province. He was taken to the Inkhayuthaborihan Military Camp in Pattani province where “military personnel allegedly kicked him and ordered him to do several hundred push-ups and jumping jacks on the hot concrete in his bare feet,” according to Amnesty International.

What Hasan is being denied is rehabilitation and redress due to a pointless, inconsistent technicality.

Despite the ruling from the Thai courts, the government still has obligations under international law – specifically the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) – to provide redress and rehabilitation to victims of torture, even in a time of martial law.

What this ruling indicates is that Thailand is exploiting the military coup as a way to ignore ongoing torture allegations.

“The Hasan Useng decision highlights the concrete damage to human rights protections in Thailand resulting from the military coup, and the fact that it is now virtually impossible to hold security forces legally accountable for their actions,” said Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, reporting to Amnesty International.

As already expressed by Amnesty and other human rights organisations Thailand should take immediate measures to ensure all persons alleging torture and ill-treatment should have an opportunity for prompt and effective investigation into their claims, as well as full access to rehabilitation and legal routes in their case.

To read the full article on Amnesty International’s site, click this link.

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