Posts Tagged Iraq

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.


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.


(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.”


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 or follow them on Facebook.


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On the forefront: The challenges facing torture rehabilitation in northern Iraq

WWT - Members series

In the blog this week we profile the newest member of the IRCT network, the Kirkuk Center for Torture Victims, offering torture rehabilitation in northern Iraq.

The logo for the new centre

The logo for the new centre

Founded in 2005, the Kirkuk Center for Torture Victims is an important multi-branched organisation offering rehabilitative services to victims of torture in the region. It is the second IRCT member in Iraq, and was founded with support from the Berlin Center for Torture Victims, a leading European institution caring for survivors of torture, persecution and genocide.

The Kirkuk centre offers services tailored to a wide variety of social groups including female and young victims of torture, victims of genocide, refugees who are survivors of torture, and many more.

Quite simply, thanks to extensive support programmes, there is no one the centre cannot help. This openness has been highlighted once more with their recent treatment of an influx of Syrian refugees at the centre whom, despite fleeing their homeland in large numbers, have had the same excellent treatment from the Kirkuk centre.

The deep understanding of the challenges refugees particularly face is perhaps ingrained in the centre’s beliefs thanks to the experience of Salah Ahmed, founder and chairman of the centre.

Himself being of Kurdish-Iraqi origin, Salah Ahmad fled his home country in 1981 and sought refuge in Germany, where he studied pedagogics and later on became a psychotherapist. At the Berlin Center for Torture Victims he has treated hundreds of survivors of torture from all over the world.

The map showing locations of the many branches of the Kirkuk Center for Torture Victims

The locations of the many branches of the Kirkuk Center for Torture Victims

After the fall of the Saddam regime, Mr. Ahmed returned to his hometown Kirkuk where in 2005 he established the first rehabilitation centre for survivors of torture in Iraq.

Until today, he still recalls one of his first patients, a young woman who had been imprisoned, tortured and held a sex slave for more than 10 years by Saddam’s security forces.

“She had had multiple abortions and given birth to three children in prison. It took more than one year of intensive therapy until I saw this woman smile for the first time”, recalls Salah Ahmad. “She was my first patient in Kirkuk and the biggest challenge of my professional career.”

Since these first days, the Kirkuk Center has come a long way. “Many things have changed since the first patient walked through our door,” Salah says. “The political and the security situation in Kirkuk and in Central Iraq is really worrying. But we have been able to help more than 11,000 patients in six cities in north Iraq.

“When I travel through my country and visit the big cities in the north, I think that hope always dies last. What we have built in this country during the past 10 years is incredible.”


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Digging for truth – Journalist Ian Cobain speaks about reporting on torture

Ian Cobain (photo provided free of charge)

Ian Cobain

If you define Britain by its oft lauded stereotypes, one may assume a peaceful, upstanding nation which obeys rules, regulations and notions of fair play. Yet for 30 years Ian Cobain has dedicated his life to exposing the secrets, the lies, the inconvenient truths often buried deep beneath a British façade.

An investigative journalist with the Guardian newspaper, his reports into the UK’s counter-terrorism practices since 9/11 have won a number of major awards including the Martha Gellhorn Prize and the Paul Foot Award for investigative journalism, as well as a range of Amnesty International awards.

In 2012 Ian published his first book, Cruel Britannia, which analysed how the British government has repeatedly and systematically resorted to torture, through years of British colonial rule, to World War Two and to the War on Terror.

And while we may not like to think of it, torture is something which Ian believes is still practiced by the UK and other Western countries often perceived to be upholding human rights.

“I’m still shocked by some of the matters I discover. But I’m no longer surprised,” says Ian.

“After 9/11, I knew by January 2002 that the US was mistreating its prisoners. Photographs showing shackled men, in gloves, ear defenders and blacked-out goggles, being dragged across the ground at Guantanamo, were published by the US military. That was a pretty good clue [that torture of prisoners was happening].

“The same month, while I was in Kabul, Red Cross officials told me that prisoners were being tortured at Kandahar. I was terribly shocked. The British government and its intelligence agencies claim they didn’t discover this for years. What nonsense.”

A report on the condition of detainees in 2012, ten years after Ian learned of torture in Kandahar, still lists the southern city in Afghanistan as one of the areas where detained individuals are routinely mistreated by officials.

“At the time it was difficult to comprehend that the British government would draw up policies that resulted in the torture, but that’s what happened,” Ian explains.

“It took me a while longer to understand the level of UK support and participation in the rendition programme. More time made me realise that the UK was complicit in kidnappings and torture during operations in which the US barely played any part.”

For Ian, the ill-treatment by the UK of those in detention, particularly in situations of conflict, is nothing new.

“British military processed and mistreated their prisoners in Northern Ireland in 1971 in precisely the same way that another generation of the British military was doing it in Basra in 2003,” says Ian.

“Authorities use it to intimidate, to coerce, to humiliate, to extract information, or to obtain so-called confessions. But it also creates reservoirs of hatred that don’t run dry for generations. And nobody can quite predict what will flow from those reservoirs.”

Hostility though is something that Ian has felt from authoritative figures, many of whom try to deter his work and the work of human rights defenders across the globe.

“Some people are hostile, but I don’t really care. I’ve been threatened once or twice, by people in ‘authority’, but I’m not in any danger,” he says.

Documenting and exposing torture is a sensitive issue for everyone involved. While the journalist or human rights activist exposing a case of torture might be in danger of reprisals, the survivor risks that and risks re-traumatisation by retelling the experience. However, documentation enables victims to prove the veracity of their allegations and thus increases the pressure on perpetrators to fulfill their obligations under international law. Torture is hardly a positive representation of a group or a country, particularly one like the UK.

Rehabilitating victims of torture, helping them recover from the trauma and become advocates for justice and truth, is one pivotal way to change views on torture in everyone’s minds.

“A few prosecutions of people in powerful positions might concentrate the minds of the next generation,” Ian adds.

Click the links in the text to some of Ian’s articles. For more information on Ian and his work click the link here or follow Ian on Twitter (@IanCobain).

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Beneath the Blindfold: an inspiring documentary on torture and rehabilitation

Editor’s Note: Beneath the Blindfold, a documentary by Ines Sommer and Kathy Berger, follows the stories of four survivors of torture as they rebuild their lives. We were given the unique opportunity to screen the film. More information is available at the film’s website on events and screenings.  

It’s difficult to identify the feeling you have as Beneath the Blindfold closes. The directors provide updates from the four people we’ve met in the last hour. And afterwards, what is it…? Hope? Melancholy? Empathy? The four stories, the four survivors of torture we meet during this one-hour documentary, are very different but their stories invoke similar complex emotions. But above all, we are left with an undeniable admiration for these four individuals, who, after unmitigated traumas arising from torture, are able to move forward through rehabilitation and rebuild their lives.

Beneath the Blindfold is an undaunted exploration of not only the experiences of the cruelties of torture, but more significantly, how people can move forward afterward. We meet Blama, a former child soldier from Liberia who, at the beginning of the film, cannot eat solid food because he was once forced to drink a toxic substance that destroyed his esophagus;  Matilde, who was raped and tortured in Guatemala because she, a doctor, was treating indigenous people; Donald, a former US Navy officer, who was detained and tortured by US authorities after reporting illegal weapons transactions in Iraq while he worked as a private security contractor; Hector, who was detained and tortured as a college student in Colombia, now uses art to confront his past.

These individual stories, though different in the details and personal experiences of the survivors, nonetheless all echo similar themes. Torture, regardless of the methods by which it is inflicted, destroys an individual’s dignity. Their trust in humanity is shattered. Few of them can continue in their professions, and every day is a challenge to avoid flashbacks to their brutal experiences.

“You feel as though you’re nothing,” Hector says in recalling his experience in Colombia. “These people can do anything to you… no one can do anything. You’ve never felt so lonely.”

And yet, the viewer is left with not only a sadness that these are commons experiences in this world (we are reminded early on in the film that torture is practiced in a majority of the world’s countries, including in the U.S. where all of the survivors depicted currently live). Instead, I was overwhelmed by the bravery and enduring hopefulness of these four survivors, who, despite these circumstances, move forward with their lives – starting new relationships, making new friends, using their experiences as a basis for anti-torture activism, and helping others like them regain their lives. Hector, for example, has a theatre, dance and therapy group with LA-based Program for Torture Victims. Matilde and her husband march in the streets against the US torture program and the military actions in Iraq. Blama, who faced intensive physical rehabilitation to rebuild his digestive system, now in turn wants to help others and is studying to be a nursing assistant and later a registered nurse. Donald continues his legal challenges against the US government to bring perpetrators to justice.

Their family members can see their bravery. Hector’s son says at one point that when he realised his father had been tortured, he actually felt proud. “He was able to take this horrible experience, and use it. Use it to show people how bad torture is. “

Matilde publically speaks out about her torture to a crowd of activists marching against the Iraq war and the US torture program. “The more you share your story,” her husband Jim tells her, “they can see something very deep and strong in you, and they just know what you’re a survivor.”

And while the story progresses, the survivors – and the viewer – can see that too, as we “accompany a survivor on their path to healing,” as Mary Fabri, director of torture treatment services at Heartland Alliance Kovler Center, an IRCT member, put it in the film.

While always a dark and troubling subject, a documentary about torture is not without hope. Instead, the enduring feeling after watching Beneath the Blindfold is admiration – the survivors of torture shown in this film move on and rebuild their lives.

Tessa Moll By Tessa, Communications Officer at IRCT

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Video corroborates claims that Danish troops knew of likelihood of torture

Danish troops did in fact witness abuse of civilian detainees at the hands of Iraqi troops during the conflict.

This has been verified by a video tape released yesterday in Danish media, provided by a former military intelligence officer, which shows Danish troops witnessing and commenting on a beating by Iraqi soldiers.

These new facts directly contradict the testimony of Lt. Col. John Dalby, commanding officer of Operation Green Desert in Iraq, who claimed at the end of 2011 that Danish troops had not witnessed abuse. While a military officer claims Dalby himself had seen the video tape, which was recording by troops under his command, Dalby today has denied this, claiming he first saw the video on TV2 News this morning.

But the question we ask ourselves is, what does this mean for the victims of torture and abuse in Iraq? Currently, 11 Iraqi citizens have sued the Danish military for colluding with torture. The cases concern the transfer of the 11 Iraqis by Danish troops to Iraqi forces, where they were tortured. The suit alleges that the Danish troops transferred the Iraqis despite the clear likeliness that they would be tortured in Iraqi custody.

This newly released video would corroborate the claim that Danish troops had previously witnessed abuse and thus had knowledge that torture and ill-treatment were likely. In the video, a Danish soldier sees Iraqi troops beating a civilian. Then, he turns and comments, “Did you see? They certainly get a beating” (In Danish, “Har du set, de får bare nogle hug”).

The IRCT collaborated with forensic experts and attorney Christian Harlang, who represents the 11 Iraqis, to compile high quality medico-legal reports that verified that they had in fact been tortured following the transfer.

“My examinations of the eleven Iraqis left me in no doubt that they had been physically and mentally tortured,” said Jørgen Lange Thomsen, Professor of Forensic Medicine at the University of Southern Denmark, who took part in the examinations.

We hope at the least that this new information get the Danish judicial system moving, after several blocks and delays have hindered the process of these torture victims from accessing justice.

See also our previous blog post on the allegation of torture from 11 Iraqi citizens against the Danish military

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Dangerous delays in Denmark

Today Danish lawyer Christian Harlang filed a further two cases in which Danish troops are accused of complicity in torture during the ill-fated invasion and occupation of Iraq by western forces. The torture was documented by members of the IRCT’s Independent Forensic Expert Group.

While further details of the case – involving Iraqis who were tortured after being handed to Iraqi authorities by Danish troops – are in the news release from the IRCT, among its most disturbing aspects are the reasons for its delay.

Two new cases have been filed involving Danish troops’ complicity in torture during the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Photo by isafmedia.

Denmark has a huge responsibility as a result of these allegations. Indeed, as per its international legal obligations via instruments like the UN Convention against Torture and the European Convention on Human Rights, any allegations of torture must be taken very seriously and thoroughly investigated. Moreover, access to justice and reparation must be provided for the victims.

However, it seems that two arguments: that the case is too old, and, that the torture victims must pay costs of over €5,000 without access to legal aid, are acting as stumbling blocks.

Arguments are being made that such claims for damages cases must be brought within three years, as per Danish law. However, even within this Danish law there are exemptions to this rule that can be granted due to exceptional circumstances. And these surely are exceptional circumstances. Often it takes years for torture survivors to come to terms with what happened to them before they can begin to speak about it, let alone bring a court case over it. Moreover, it is not reasonable to expect people living in a strife-ridden country thousands of kilometres away to know the intricacies of the Danish legal system.

That such delays are happening in Denmark is particularly concerning. Denmark is generally known and respected for its efforts against torture globally. That torture has not only been linked to Danish troops, but that the Danish justice system appears to be throwing obstructions in the path of justice for these actions sends out a new and different message.

Scott McAusland is Head of Communications at the IRCT

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Forensic evidence confirms torture of Iraqis after handover from Danish troops

Although we had this posted to our website over the weekend, we haven’t yet included this news on our blog.

The results of forensic examinations of Iraqi citizens detained by Danish troops and transferred to Iraqi security forces have revealed that they were tortured.

The forensic examinations were performed in Jordan earlier this month by three clinical experts coordinated by the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT).

Five Iraqi citizens – all detained and released without charge in late 2004 – had alleged torture following their transfer by Danish troops to Iraqi forces following random arrest. The preliminary findings indicate that all five had been subjected to ill-treatment amounting to torture.

Through our FEAT project (Forensic Evidence against Torture), Jørgen Lange Thomsen, a medical examiner and head of the forensic department at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense (you can also hear more about Dr. Thomsen’s work in our short film) , examined two Iraqis last week while accompanied by journalists from Danish newspaper Politiken (you can read the English version of their story here).

Following random arrest by Danish soldiers during the occupation in Iraq, approximately 30 detainees were handed over to Iraqi police, who abused and tortured them, the evidence confirms. Five of the Iraqis plan to sue the Danish government.

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