Posts Tagged Iran

Using art and learning to treat trauma in France

In France, IRCT member centre Parcours d’Exil uses a vast range of methods to treat their clients. Among these approaches are art therapy, language classes and cultural events, which can help accelerate torture survivors’ recovery. For one torture survivor art therapy proved the key to easing his fears and allowed him to deal with the horrific trauma of his past.


Art therapy and music classes are just some of the many activities the centre runs (Copyright Parcours d’Exil)

In August 2015, Parcours d’Exil was contacted by a volunteer of Iranian descent working for the Red Cross, who had benefitted from one of the centre’s training programmes. She asked the centre to make an emergency appointment for an Iranian asylum seeker who had arrived in France two days before.

On the day of the consultation, asylum seeker N appeared to be in a state of fear, incapable of uttering a word, watchful of everything and everyone and crying all the time. He made it clear that he was afraid of the therapist and he showed signs of being afraid he was being watched and threatened.

As the consultations went on, N slowly started to communicate with the help of an Afghan translator, who the centre had chosen to avoid bringing back his memories of the Iranian “aggressor”. He managed to tell the therapist about the traumatic events he had endured.

Parcours d’Exil quickly realised that verbal communication would be complicated, and could hinder therapeutic cooperation as they brought back N’s impressions of the interrogation. Centre staff decided to introduce him to their art therapist. Art therapy, in this particular form, proved to be the real entry point, helping N to accept and engage in the broader therapeutic process at the centre.

In their first meeting, N and the art therapist found themselves sitting on rugs, drinking tea while listening to classical music.

It became clear that N patient presented a post-traumatic dissociative disorder. He complained of anxiety, insomnia and post-traumatic nightmares (in which he found himself, for instance, in a bunker without any light), memory disorders and an inability to focus, which forced him to write down everything. He could not take the bus or metro for fear of not being able to exit it. He also complained of being unusually irritable, always fearing that the person he was speaking to would try to take control of him.

Like many other patients, N did not want any medication, having been exposed to “harmful” treatments in the past. Furthermore, he had been hospitalised in a psychiatric ward after two suicide attempts before being incarcerated. External elements exacerbated his symptoms, particularly when he learned of his mother’s hospitalisation back in Iran.

In order to familiarise him with Parcours d’Exil’s Health Centre, he was invited to attend French courses and music workshops that the centre organises, while continuing the art therapy. It soon became clear that participating in these classes, within the reassuring frame of the centre, had become a “necessity” for him, and his social behaviour changed dramatically.


(Copyright Parcours d’Exil)

He never missed any of the cultural visits organised by the centre, and he was gradually able to socialise again and regain some confidence. He put himself forward to sing Persian songs during music classes, started to communicate in French during the French for Foreign Speakers sessions and decided to try to learn how to play the piano.

Like in many cases, one simple detail or situation can easily trigger bad memories. During a French language lesson, N was shown a picture of a bathtub. He immediately froze and was overcome with an immense sadness.

Although the nightmares were a constant reminder of his imprisonment and torture, the courses enabled him to recover the long-forgotten feeling that life could be seen through a positive lens. Along with psychotherapy, art therapy, music and French language lessons were key aspects of the positive outcome of his treatment, in terms of his quality of life and speed of recovery.

All the more so given the fact that his case was extremely complex, and such patients often take years to recover. On numerous occasions, N was able to talk about the improvements in his life, and how he behaved and felt about himself. It took less than six months for N to make this progress.

N’s story confirms the idea that Parcours d’Exil promotes: That the inclusion of artistic and creative activities is a powerful catalyst to accelerate self-reconstruction.


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Leaps forward: a wrap up of the UN Human Rights Council’s annual session

For four weeks every March, Geneva turns into a buzzing hub of global human rights dialogue and deliberations. Human rights defenders, national human rights institutions, diplomats and other stakeholders descend on the city for the main annual session of the UN Human Right Council. This is where international human rights standards are negotiated, States monitor and discuss thematic and country specific human rights situations and human rights defenders go to bring attention to the most recent developments on enjoyment of human rights across the globe.

With such a stage it is naturally difficult to single out specific events to highlight, so this snapshot is deliberately viewed from the perspective of the IRCT and our main priority areas around torture rehabilitation and prevention. From this perspective, four very different events stood out at the recent session that may have a great positive impact on the global anti-torture work:

The Council addressed the issue of redress and rehabilitation for torture victims in a consensus resolution, negotiated by the Danish government. The resolution stands out with its very strong language on access to rehabilitation services, and, among other things, encourages States to make appropriate rehabilitation services promptly available without discrimination, to support rehabilitation centres and to do this through a victims-oriented approach, thus putting victims’ needs at the centre of the process.

This should be seen in the context of the more detailed and comprehensive General Comment 3, adopted by the UN Committee against Torture in November 2012, which address the broader issue of redress. Taken together, these two documents provide advocates of rehabilitation for torture victims with the political support by the global State community (the resolution) and the technical elaboration of the obligation (the General Comment) to demand the realization of the right to rehabilitation from their respective governments.

In another important consensus resolution, the Council addressed the issue of protection of human rights defenders. This resolution featured significant improvements from previous resolutions. For torture rehabilitation organisations operating in difficult environments, where they fear  for their safety as human rights defenders, this resolution may provide some additional arguments in their daily advocacy on this issue.

The March session is also the time where the Special Rapporteur on Torture presents his annual thematic report to the Human Rights Council. This year’s report focused on torture in the health care setting and exposed practices of torture and ill-treatment in various contexts, such as against LGBTI persons, in drug rehabilitation centres, in mental health facilities, in access to reproductive rights and general provision of pain relief treatment.

Like many other sub-themes of torture and ill-treatment, this one also proved to be highly controversial, especially with many States that tend to take a very restrictive view of the torture definition. Furthermore, there seemed to be some confusion about the specific meaning of some sections of the report, which suffered from the restriction of addressing a problem of such magnitude within 20 pages.  Hopefully, the Special Rapporteur’s report will manage to open the world’s eyes to the torture and ill-treatment inflicted on these vulnerable groups and kick start a debate on how best to prevent and respond to such violations in a fashion where health professionals are made part of the solution instead of viewed as the problem.

Last but not least, the March session was the venue of the second act of an initiative started by UK-based IRCT member Freedom From Torture (FFT) with the support of the IRCT. Here, FFT produced analytical reports on the torture situation in countries of origin of their main client groups at their UK centres. These reports, which are based on forensic documentation of the clients in accordance with the Istanbul Protocol, are used for the dual purpose of building background information for asylum cases and promoting changes on the ground in the country of origin to the benefit of future generations and as an important element of reparations (guarantee of non-repetition) for their clients.

In the first act was a very well received report on Sri Lanka to the UN Committee Against Torture in 2011, which greatly contributed to a very strong examination of the Sri Lankan government. The second act was a report on the situation in Iran, which made a significant contribution to the work of the UN Special Rapporteur on Iran and which was officially launched during an event at the Human Rights Council in March. It is truly remarkable to see the impact that these reports, based on medical evidence, have in a context at the UN where most reports and assertions are, at best, based on interviews and anecdotal information. It is very easy for States to claim that victims of torture and ill-treatment are lying to an interviewer because they want to hurt the government, but when faced with overwhelming forensic medical evidence produced by independent health professionals in a third country they tend to get more quiet and shy away. I, for one, can’t wait for FFT to launch their third act — a feeling perhaps not shared by governments that torture.

I can safely say that this is the most exciting and promising Council session that I have experienced since the very first session in 2006. And I am looking very much forward to the next Council session in June where the IRCT in collaboration with Penal Reform International will host an event where torture rehabilitation specialists will evaluate and discuss how to best implement the right to rehabilitation and what role UN human rights mechanisms can play to support these efforts.

Asger By Asger, Head of IRCT’s Geneva Liaison Office

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Monday News Updates

As I mentioned Friday, we at the IRCT Secretariat have been very busy the last few weeks – tomorrow is the first day of our annual Council Meeting, our governing board of representatives from 26 member centres around the world and three independent experts. Their role is to ensure the formulation and implementation of major IRCT policy, and includes the membership in the democratic process of the organisation. It is truly a gathering of the rehabilitation movement in support of torture victims.

We will be sure to provide a full report from our annual Council meeting, but until then, here are the most updated news from around the world on torture and rehabilitation.

Political changes may be under way in Burma, but we echo Amnesty International’s concern for the current political prisoners being held in horrendous conditions.

“Prison conditions in Myanmar fall far short of many international standards.  Food, water and medical care are insufficient; political prisoners are often held far away from their families; and many have been subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, including prolonged solitary confinement.”

Sarah Shourd ( left) her fiance Shane Bauer (right), and their friend Josh Fattal were arrested and detained after they unknowingly crossed the Iranian border on a hike through Kurdistan. Shourd writes in the New York Times of her torture experience with solitary confinement; she spent 9,495 hours alone in an Iranian prison cell leaving her with post-traumatic stress disorder. Available via Flickr, permission under Creative Commons license.

Sarah Shourd, one of the three hikers detained in Iran when they unknowingly cross the border from Kurdistan, has written about her torture experience with solitary confinement.

“It’s impossible to exaggerate how much the company of another human being means when you’ve been cut off from the world and stripped of your rights and freedom.”

Shourd calls on reviews of prison policies of solitary confinement, describing it as a torture with long-lasting impact on her life. Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, has also called for a complete ban of the practice.

The U.S. is working on a deal with Afghanistan officials for the transfer of all detention facilities to Afghan control. However, among the reported issues holding up the deal – night raids and a timeline for the transfer – a UN report issued a few weeks ago documented ‘systematic torture’ in Afghanistan run prisons.

The Zimbabwean reports that the country’s High Court has ruled that two ‘thugs’ of Mugabe’s ZANU (PF) party who tortured a man who was a supporter of MDC during the 2008 political violence must pay the victim compensation for their crimes. The survivor reports he will use the funds to begin paying medical bills for his injuries. From a Zimbabwe human rights group (emphasis added by Editor):

The rights group commended the ruling by Justice Makone as a positive step towards promoting respect for human rights. “This serves to deter future violators of human rights thereby fostering a culture of accountability in the communities,” said the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum in a statement.

“The order serves not only to compensate Katiyo for the ordeal he suffered but also as an expression of the shared societal outrage at the ill-treatment he experienced. This is a positive step towards promoting respect for human rights and serves to deter future violators of human rights thereby fostering a culture of accountability in the communities.”

EU sees ‘important changes’ in Myanmar (AFP)
Myanmar political prisoners held in dog cells and denied water (Amnesty International)
Tortured by Solitude (New York Times)
Night raids, prison control stymie US-Afghan deal (Reuters)
High Court rules in favour of tortured MDC member (The Zimbabwean)

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