Posts Tagged IRCT

Kenya: The dangers facing human rights defenders amid decades of torture and ill treatment

It was the oppressive regime of former Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi that led to the establishment of Mwatikho Torture Survivors’ Organization (MATESO) in 1995. As president, Moi was responsible for the torture, death and disappearance of thousands of people who were considered supporters of the opposition.

While many people were tortured in the notorious Nyayo House torture chambers in the heart of Nairobi, the president’s crackdown went far beyond the country’s capital. One of the places affected by the violence was the town of Bungoma near the Ugandan border.

“The international community realised there was a problem in Kenya and they came to the country through Amnesty International to look for victims of torture. They identified Bungoma as an area with many victims and that’s why MATESO was founded there,” explains Taiga Job Wanyanja, centre coordinator of MATESO.

The MATESO centre in Bungoma.

The MATESO centre in Bungoma. Photo: Natalia Jidovanu.

Taiga was one of the centre’s founders. He saw firsthand how people who had been subjected to unthinkable atrocities were in urgent need of help. At the time, torture victims in Kenya had nowhere to go to receive rehabilitation. There was a group of international doctors who came to the country to help rehabilitate the victims. This led to the foundation of MATESO.

“Back then we didn’t even know about rehabilitation so we started borrowing approaches from other countries on how to rehabilitate. Victims wanted medication, they wanted psychosocial support and counselling because of the kind of torture they had been through, which was horrific,” recalls Taiga.

According to those who survived, the regime used a repertoire of gruesome torture methods including electric wires, beatings, falanga and sexual abuse.

“People were victims of government perpetrators and other state agents who were trained by the police to carry out the crackdown. They used torture methods to suppress those not supporting Moi’s regime.”

Only a few years after Moi resigned in 2002, Bungoma saw the rise of a guerrilla militia group called Sabaot Land Defence Force (SLDF). The separatist group, which soon became very powerful, began to implement a parallel administration system and set up an unofficial taxation of local residents. The group was accused of killing more than 1,000 people, and of committing various atrocities including murder, torture and rape. In the course of 18 months, over 66,000 people were displaced because of SLDF.

Torture victim treated at MATESO. Photo: Natalia Jidovanu

Torture victim treated at MATESO. Photo: Natalia Jidovanu

“I think the government somehow relaxed and allowed this group to become a very serious force. It set up kangaroo courts, set up torture chambers, it initiated its own taxation system, carried out abductions and forced disappearances. In fact over 1,000 people were killed during that period,” says Taiga.

Along with other human rights defenders in the country, Taiga suddenly found himself as a target of the militia and as the situation deteriorated, the less safe he was. At this point, the government had finally deployed the military to crack down on SLDF, but it was using similar techniques as the group and began targeting citizens who were not part of SLDF. According to Taiga, the government was even using the same system of disappearances, torture and arrests as SLDF and when he and other human rights defenders voiced their concern about this, the military came after them as well.

It was clear that his life was at risk and he had no other choice than flee to Uganda, leaving behind his family.

“I had to leave my family behind in Kenya. I had five children and my wife who I left behind. They were also being threatened and had to move to another place.

“After a year I came back to find that the military had crushed the militia group and their illegal activities. The military had caused a lot of damage to the entire community of the western region of Kenya. More than one million people had been affected and the entire community of that region was suffering from PTSD.”

The everlasting scars from torture. Photo: Natalia Jidovanu

The everlasting scars from torture. Photo: Natalia Jidovanu

Today, MATESO continues to treat victims of the former governments and SLDF with entire communities suffering from the effects of torture. Each year, MATESO staff, consisting of 15 full-time or part-time counsellors, psychiatrists, medical doctors, nurses and lawyers, provide services to 1,000 torture survivors. But while many of them are victims of past violations, MATESO also support victims of ongoing police brutality.

Taiga tells us about a recent episode that took place in a small village. The police beat up a group of people and raped the women, but despite the public outcry that followed, the perpetrators were not brought to justice. In fact, when the victims tried to report the attacks, they found themselves reporting to the perpetrating police officers. A stark reminder that impunity is still widespread in Kenya.

The high level of impunity is particularly evident to Taiga who continues to be a target for threats and acts of harassment. As a result, he has to take his precautions when addressing a human rights issue in public or simply try to avoid confronting the government over an issue to do with torture. Yet, he continues to treat torture victims, who, had it not been for him and MATESO, would not be able to access rehabilitation services.

“I am also a victim and I know that the healing process is a long process. Victims need a lot of help. They require a long-term process to heal in my experience. After some time and after intervention I have seen people recover and really appreciate the psychosocial support we have given them. We have many survivors who have told us we have made a difference in their life. Most people cannot afford the services they need so through our intervention they feel they are at ease with life now because they can get the care they need.”

MATESO is a member of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT). To find out more, please visit the MATESO website.

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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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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.

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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.

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(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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Ten years on and the Women of Atenco still seek justice

“When I got out of jail, I stayed in my house for a year,” says Claudia. “I cried, and I suffered so much. I had had plans for the future with my partner, but when I got out of jail, he left me. I felt like the whole world had turned its back on me because I was a rape victim. During that time, I began to drink a lot, and I started to go to a lot of bars. I did many things I didn’t normally do. And then I realised that the government had tied me up for a moment. They laid the first stone of my destruction. But even with all of this, I said to myself, ‘I am still Claudia! I am still Claudia! I was raped, but this does not take away my dignity.”

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Bárbara Italia Méndez Moreno (Photograph courtesy of Daniel Berehulak)

These are the words of Claudia. She is one of the 45 women arrested by police in Mexico one morning in May 2006 at a market square where they sold flowers. Dozens were seriously injured, two people were killed and many of those arrested sexually assaulted. The women have never received justice for what they experienced and continue to fight the impunity of their perpetrators. They have become known around the world because of their fight for justice.

In September this year, a little over 10 years since the event, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) filed an application with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in relation to their case. The Commission noticed the “existence of severe acts of physical and psychological violence, including diverse forms of sexual violence against the eleven women and rape in the case of seven women”.

This development is a milestone in the struggle of the Women of Atenco, as not a single person has been convicted of any crime related to the assaults. In 2013 the state partially admitted responsibility, but the Women of Atenco say it has failed to deliver justice as the federal forces involved in the assaults have never received sanctions.

In addition, after the events of 3 May the state initially prosecuted several of the women rather than the police officers involved. Five were imprisoned for a year or more, on charges such as blocking traffic. Achieving some sense of justice may go some way to helping the women overcome the trauma of their past. “I have not overcome it, not even a little. It is something that haunts me and you don’t survive. It stays with you,” says Maria Patricia Romero Hernández, one of the women, in a previous interview.

The IACHR had previously recommended that the state arrange full reparation for the victims, including providing them with medical and psychological treatment, continue its investigations effectively to “fully establish what happened, and to identify and punish the different grades of responsibility, from the material authors to other forms of responsibility”.

However, the Commission was not satisfied that the Mexican state followed its recommendations and has now stepped up its action by filing the application. A ruling made by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights would be binding, unlike the recommendations, and could create a judicial precedent that could prevent further sexual abuses by federal security forces.

The fact that the case is finally receiving the attention it deserves has not stopped the Women of Atenco from continuing to spread their message and two of them, Italia Mendez and Norma Jimenez, will be keynote speakers at the upcoming IRCT 10th International Scientific Symposium in December in Mexico City. The women will speak in a session on survivor participation in research and treatment planning and will share their experiences.

“We are those who did not surrender to the misogyny of the state, and rejected the place that perpetrators assigned to us. They tried to take our identity, but we responded by shouting our name out loudly and reclaiming our right to be. We are breaking paradigms, taboos and raising awareness about the stigmatisation of survivors,” says Italia.

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International Day of Non-Violence: Surviving life after torture in Palestine

UN International Day of Non-Violence is marked every year on 2 October. At World Without Torture we regularly share the stories of those who have experienced acts of violence that have changed their lives forever, so the effects of torture can’t be forgotten or ignored. Today, the story of Palestinian AA reminds us that for some, violence is seen as a tool of oppression and fear and torture is seen as an effective means of interrogation. It is because of this that days like the International Day of Non-Violence are important, it is because of people like AA.

In Jerusalem in January 2014, 17-year-old Palestinian AA was walking home from football training with his cousin when they were attacked by soldiers who first shot them in the feet and then told them to get on the ground. As they called for help a dog was unleashed on them. They allege that a group of ten Israeli soldiers beat them with their rifles and stood on their bullet wounds.

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Palestinian children and adults play football on the streets of Bethlehem. (Courtesy of yrl via Flickr creative commons licence)

AA’s cousin describes how they were then blindfolded and dragged to a military camp. “I was put in a room and interrogated violently; my clothes were torn. I had one wound in my hand, three on the right side and seven on my left thigh and area around my knee.”

The interrogators refused to believe they had been playing football and tried to force them to admit they had been throwing stones at the soldiers. They were told that if they confessed to these charges, they would not be beaten. They both refused to sign the confession, which was written in Hebrew so they could not understand it, and were continuously beaten for four more hours.

They were eventually brought to a hospital where they received medical care. AA’s cousin was operated on and woke up at 2pm the following day to find himself handcuffed in bed and under the supervision of eight soldiers. AA had three infected bullet wounds in his left thigh and was kept in hospital for a week, with his hands and legs handcuffed the entire time aside from when he was brought meals. During this time they were not allowed to have any visitors.

They were then transferred to a court and met by their lawyer who petitioned the court to release them since no indictments had been brought against them. Both were still in need of serious medical care and were transferred to a hospital in Jordan where they received treatment for two months. AA needed stitches on his head and his right thigh bone was fractured, while his cousin also needed stitches, had a fractured hand and torn hamstring. His legs were also badly damaged from the bullet wounds.

When returning from Jordan, they were not allowed to travel via the airport in Tel Aviv so they had to cross the border between Jordan and the West Bank as they both have West Bank identification cards. En route they were arrested by Israeli intelligence officers and brought to a settlement near Jerusalem. They were then interrogated for three hours and allege they were forced to confess to charges stating they had been trying to attack a military camp.

In the presence of their lawyer they were transferred to Ofer Prison, an Israeli facility in the West Bank where they were detained for 18 days until a deal was struck between their lawyer and the military prosecutor to prevent their families from pressing charges against the soldiers. They were both sentenced to 70 days in prison and fined 3,500 shekels and subsequently released in June 2014.

Today, AA and his cousin are receiving treatment from a psychiatrist and psychologist, as well as individual behavioural therapy at IRCT member centre, the Treatment and Rehabilitation Centre for Victims of Torture (TRC Palestine). They still struggle to process what happened and the impact their injuries have had on their lives as AA has not been able to return to school or play football again.

Sadly, the story of AA and his cousin is far from unique. As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues so does the violence, which affects thousands of people. TRC Palestine works with many people like AA and his cousin to reduce the devastating physical and psychological consequences of torture and politically motivated violence, as well as the retaliatory behaviour of the victims through its treatment and rehabilitation programme.

With no prospect of peace between the two sides and violence continuing, the work of organisations like TRC Palestine provide invaluable support and a glimmer of hope to the many victims of violence.

 

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CPTRT: Delivering rehabilitation to those in need in Honduras

Honduras is one of the poorest countries in Latin America and ongoing human rights violations have forced thousands of people to flee the country. Based in the capital, Tegucigalpa, IRCT member CPTRT offers relief and support to those affected by violence and torture.

For a country of less than 10 million, Honduras faces some big challenges. High rates of poverty and unemployment, as well as a poor human rights record have led to thousands of Hondurans fleeing their country. For those who stay, organised violence, rape and torture are real threats.

This is the harsh context, in which organisations like the Centre for Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture and their Relatives (CPTRT) operate.

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Hondurans protest against corruption on the streets of Tegucigalpa in June 2015. (Courtesy of rbreve via Flickr creative commons licence)

Founded in 1995 by doctor, politician and human rights activist Juan Almendarez, CPTRT has become a leader within its field and a strong voice in the fight against torture. The centre employs a team of doctors, psychologists and social workers, as well as a group of volunteers.

Over the years, this team has successfully treated thousands of victims of torture and violence, but it is often a case of too much demand and not enough supply. CPTRT is one of just a few torture rehabilitation centres in Honduras, and as the national health system does not recognise torture as a health problem, there is little specialised treatment or rehabilitation available.

A paradox perhaps, given the many accounts of torture that CPTRT encounters. Gustavo N. Peña, Psychologist and Project Coordinator at CPTRT says the centre deals with many different types of victims, “from those who speak out against human rights abuses to the families of those in prison, students and those deprived of liberty”.

Since the army ousted President Manuel Zelaya in 2009, the country has struggled with violence and unrest. The majority of victims of violence are women, children and the young people as well as activists and political leaders. Women and children in particular are often vulnerable and easy targets for the perpetrators who are usually never punished.

To change this, holding perpetrators responsible is a key issue for the CPTRT. The centre is committed to fighting impunity and by providing technical and legal assistance, it does everything it can to help its clients get access to justice but this is not easy as many victims do not want to speak out.

“Fundamentally, torture contributes to the development of a widespread sense of insecurity and fear that paralyses citizens and stops them from demanding justice. The population prefers to keep silent about the abuses that it is subjected to,” says Gustavo N. Peña.

In addition to its legal and technical assistance, CPTRT looks at the physical, cognitive and emotional health of its clients, using medical, alternative and psychological treatment to individuals and their relatives. It also runs capacity building programmes with various community group

Looking at a recent report from the World Health Organization (WHO) on health worker-to-population ratio in Honduras, it is easy to see why CPTRT’s services are in demand.

According to the WHO, there is an extreme shortage of physicians, psychologists and psychiatrists in the country with as little as 20.8 physicians per 10,000 population. And to make matters worse for the many Hondurans exposed to torture, most of the physicians do not have the knowledge to recognise torture or carry out rehabilitation of torture victims.

Juan Almendarez, Director of CPTRT has previously spoken about how, “The number of human rights violations by the military is rising, and the threat is greater and growing because military police operate with their faces covered and without visible identification, which fans impunity.” Gustavo N. Peña agrees that this culture of impunity is a challenge to eradicating torture in Honduras saying he believes that, “Torture is seen as a mechanism of investigation, as well as punishment”.

Today, CPTRT is a key player within the Honduran human rights movement and despite the daily challenges they face, centre staff continue to dedicate their lives to making a difference; as Alba Mejia, Assistant Director at CPTRT says, “Wherever there is injustice, we need to fight it and turn it into a positive change”.

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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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Torture and torment in Libya

Five and a half years on from the ousting of former Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi, the country remains in an unstable state, facing the threat of IS and political infighting. Gaddafi was killed in February 2011 and on this year’s anniversary of his death, interim president Abdul Jalil insisted his government had, “opened our arms to all Libyans, whether they supported the revolution or not”. Acknowledging this message of inclusion, let’s not forget the many people with links to Gaddafi who were targeted in the aftermath of the dictator’s death. One of these people is HH who was tortured by the police.

HH was just 18 when Gaddafi died and her family was one of many to be persecuted because of their connection to his regime. The fact that they also belonged to a minority ethnic group made their situation even more dangerous. Immediately after Gaddafi’s death HH and her family were threatened and harassed by the new authorities who wanted them to leave the country.

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Libyans take to the streets in the aftermath of Gaddafi’s death (Courtesy of Mojomogwal via Flickr creative commons licence)

Her father was captured in 2014 and not released until 2016; she believes he was tortured during this time, though he never spoke about it. Soon after his release he was murdered on the street. After her father was taken away, HH was also arrested by the police and taken to prison. Over the course of a month, she was interrogated, sexually assaulted and beaten. Her head was shaved and she received death threats constantly. She was also forced to witness other family members being beaten.

Sadly, her story is far from unique. A UN High Commissioner for Human Rights report on Libya released in February 2016, found that killings and torture are being committed with impunity by “a multitude of actors – both state and non-state”.

HH was released a month later and knew she needed to leave the country if she was to survive. Along with a close relative she made her way to Croatia, but the trauma of what she had experienced made day to day life impossible. HH was referred to the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) member centre Rehabilitation Center for Stress and Trauma (RCT) in Zagreb by the Red Cross.

When she arrived at the centre she was suffering from depression, insomnia, nightmares and a loss of appetite. She also struggled to form relationships with people as she felt like she couldn’t trust anyone. She had physical injuries as a result of the sexual assault but like many victims of sexual violence, refused to speak about what she had experienced.

RCT Zagreb provided social, medical, psychiatric and psychological support to both HH and her relative – also a victim of torture. The centre found accommodation for both of them and staff worked hard to establish trust so they could start the treatment and help HH integrate in Croatia. She was enrolled in a language course and received help to search for a job.

Through her therapy she began to deal with her grief at losing her family and the promising future she once had in Libya, where she was an ambitious student. A year and a half later and thanks to the work of the RCT Zagreb staff life had become more manageable for HH. She left Croatia in 2016, hoping to find a better future in Germany.

While HH escaped the violence and left her life in Libya behind, an article in The Guardian suggests that many people are losing hope in the country. In the article, which was written around the time of the five-year-anniversary, one student who supported the revolution said, “Some people say they want to go back to the time of Gaddafi. I don’t. Where I want to go is out, out of the country.”

 

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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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