Posts Tagged Palestine

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.

sport, Tom, Youssef, Salah

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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Gaza: Interviews with victims of war

“There was a call for help in a house which had been randomly shelled at Mujama’a St, East Gaza City. It was nearly 01:00 on the last day of Ramadan. The house was in complete chaos when the team arrived. There was dense smoke everywhere and a very bad smell, which hardly allowed them to breathe. I got the stretcher and the flashlight and entered the building, where I immediately saw a badly injured woman under the staircase. I took her to the ambulance and went back to the house. We managed to fit 3-6 people into the second ambulance….

“What shocked me most about this incident was that I forgot the flashlight in the house and my colleague asked me to go back and get it, since we would need it later for other evacuations. When I went back, I heard the feeble cry of a small baby, which I hadn’t noticed before. I looked around but couldn’t see anyone. Then I felt that the voice was coming from under a heap of rubble in flames. I searched in the rubble, though I felt my hands getting burnt, and finally I found a baby around one month old. I took her and ran back to the ambulance, but before I arrived she stopped breathing. I performed cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on her, and she came back to life.

“I was shocked by the incident, because she could have been one of my children, and I had almost left her behind in the fire to a certain death. I still thank God that I forgot the flashlight, so I was forced to go back to the house and could find her! I found a picture of her in the hospital on the internet, and I saved it, because it is a great encouragement for me. Now I want to look for her and see her grow, to tell her how proud I am that she is alive.”

Thousands of people have been killed or injured in the Gaza conflict.

Thousands of people have been killed or injured in the Gaza conflict. (Courtesy of Robert Croma, used via Flickr creative commons licence).

The author of this story is Yousef Al Kahlout, a PRCS paramedic, who was part of the emergency response to Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip last summer.

Although accounts vary, most estimates put the number of residents of Gaza killed in the 50-day armed conflict at more than 2,000, of whom at least 70% were civilians. Additionally, more than 11,000 were wounded and over 100,000 made homeless because of the attacks.

The tale of Yousef and the baby he saved is one of hope. However, buried in the rubble in Gaza are many other stories of the short but devastating conflict.

Eight independent medical experts travelled to Gaza to uncover these stories. In a new fact-finding report, commissioned by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, they detail the types, causes and patterns of injuries based on interviews with victims.

The report, which is now available, provides a unique insight into the devastating impact war had on the civilians and communities in Palestine, and, at least partly, brings to light some of the stories the conflict nearly erased.

To read the full report, click here.

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On the forefront: Pioneering mental health care in Gaza

WWT - Members series

“A Palestinian society that respects human rights and in which people live in dignity, free of oppression, and feel that their well-being is promoted.” It is a bold mission in present day Palestine and the Gaza Strip, but it is one which the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP) has been dedicated to since 1990.

Since its establishment the GCMHP, based in the Gaza Strip, has given special consideration to Palestinian victims of human rights violations, particularly those who have experienced torture during detention and still feel the effects of their experience both physically and psychologically.gaza1

The GCMHP was also one of the main platforms of work for global mental health pioneer Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj, who died, aged 70, in December 2013.

El-Sarraj founded the GCMHP in 1990 and continued to work with the team to provide rehabilitation for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, especially women and children.

Speaking with Al Jazeera following El-Sarraj’s death, Husam El-Nounou, who worked alongside him at the GCMHP for 22 years, said the GCMHP has helped some 35,000 Palestinians since its creation.

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Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj

“Dr. Sarraj paved the way for a discipline that was not well-known, a discipline that was stigmatized not only for the patients, but also for the workers. He lit a candle and he founded an enlightened movement for Gaza and for Palestine,” El-Nounou told Al Jazeera at the time.

To alleviate the impact of torture and organized violence in the Gaza Strip, the GCMHP helps victims coping with traumatic experiences and builds the capacity of professionals working with the effects of imprisonment and torture in the region.

Through prison visits, therapy sessions, education and campaigning, GCMHP hope that past human rights violations can be overcome, and that future human rights violations can be prevented.

To find out more about GCMHP, click this link.

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Health professionals on the front line: learning to identify and report torture in Israel

It began perhaps with a 63-page report [PDF]. Jointly produced by The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) and Physicians for Human Rights – Israel, the report found that health professionals in Israel are often involved in ill-treatment and torture.

This was a glaring contradiction of their roles and obligations as health professionals. But contradictions are perhaps the standard in the context of the human rights in Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).

But many human rights defenders and organisations from all sides are trying untangle these contradictions and point a way forward. While many steps need to be taken to ensure an end to torture in the region, one way forward is an end to impunity for these crimes. And for the perpetrators to be held to account, torture must be recorded, documented and reported.

The IRCT is no stranger to training health and legal professionals in using the Istanbul Protocol – the common name for the Manual on Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment  – in producing forensic medico-legal reports in cases of alleged torture. The document was developed in 1999 with assistance from more than 75 experts and spearheaded by the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, an IRCT member, and Physicians for Human Rights. The Istanbul Protocol is the set of standards and procedures to identify symptoms of torture for use as medical evidence in legal proceedings. The IRCT and partners worldwide have trained thousands of health and legal professionals on the use of this manual. [download a copy here]

But the project plan and the context are indeed unique, says Dr Joost den Otter, IRCT’s Clinical Director and Head of Health. Joost is heading up IRCT’s partnership with PCATI, who is running the project to train around 17 health professionals, targeted toward those professionals that speak Arabic, working in the OPT or willing to work with interpreters. All of them ready to assess detainees and prisoners from the OPT held within Israeli detention facilities. While a typical training session in the Istanbul Protocol will be just a single day, he says, the current project with PCATI lasts two years and involves four training sessions for the 17 participants, and any other legal or health professionals that are welcome to join. Participants also have to complete two assessments a year using the Istanbul Protocol procedures in cases of alleged torture. They also must write a scientific paper on torture for a peer-reviewed, academic journal in their particular health field.

“Health professionals are on the frontlines,” explains Joost. “These are the people who, rather than contribute to torture, must be doing their best to fight it. And further to that, spread their newly-gained knowledge to their colleagues.”

And the context of training Israeli health professionals on how to properly assess torture allegations is a bit tense. Some feel a contradiction or opposing senses of loyalty to the Israeli state, in which they are a citizen of, and reporting human rights violations.

“There is a perceived connectedness to the perpetrators. The ‘ticking-time bomb scenario’ is definitely in the air,” Joost says, referring to the oft-cited though clearly refuted [PDF] argumentation that torture is necessary in cases of immediate threats against citizens. Although the participants have been very eager and enthusiastic about the training on the Istanbul Protocol, they have reported a hesitancy to share this fact with their friends and family.

PCATI itself, unlike the IRCT, is not a health-based organisation, but a legal one. They have long been trying to gain access to the courts for victims of torture. They have filed approximately 800 complaints alleging torture by the General Security Service, but the courts have not yet taken one up.

Many of the health professionals also feel a sense of frustration after identifying a victim of torture – there are extremely few options for torture victims to access rehabilitation services.

“In this context, most torture happens in Israeli prisons, but torture is also rampant in Palestinian territories, where it may be even more difficult to access appropriate after-care.”

PCATI is not a member of the IRCT as they don’t offer rehabilitation services, but across hour-long checkpoints is the Treatment and Rehabilitation Centre for Victims of Torture in the West Bank, which Joost visited during his most recent training in the area. There are two more IRCT centres in the Palestinian Territories – Gaza Community Mental Health Programme and Jesoor Transcultural Right to Health also in the Gaza Strip.

But borders in the region are an obstacle. Joost, on this most recent trip, spent 90 minutes waiting at a checkpoint coming from Ramallah to Jerusalem. On a bus with a dozen girls making the trip to school, he felt his mere 90 minutes during this one-time trip was almost of no consequence compared to their twice-daily, five-days-weekly journey.

A fraught and tense context, of course, but one in which those on the front lines – the doctors, psychologist and other health professionals – can move forward on ending impunity and bringing the perpetrators of torture to justice.

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News roundup

News roundup for the week includes: stories on solitary confinement in the US; Palestinian children in Israel detention; new Supreme Court decision in Mexico may stomp out impunity; Argentina’s torture problem. 

Human Rights Watch estimates that, on any given day, there are 80,000 US prisoners in solitary confinement; many who have been subjected to this form of torture for years, even decades in some cases. Photo by x1klima on Flickr; available through Creative Commons License.

United States:
An editorial at Al Jazeera notes
that media and perhaps legislative consensus is growing around the issue of long-term solitary confinement as torture. UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez has previously stated that solitary confinement longer than 15 days can constitute torture. Some prisoners in the US detention system have been in some form or another of solitary confinement for as long as 40 years. The editorial also indicates that this form of punishment and cruel treatment may be more often applied to black prisoners, such as the infamous Angola 3.

Occupied Palestinian Territory:
Defence for Children International, an international children’s rights NGO, has released a staggering report on abuse of Palestinian children in Israeli detention. “The first 48 hours after a child is taken are the most important because that’s when the most abuse happens,” DCI’s lawyer Gerard Horten told Al Jazeera in an interview, echoing the findings of an upcoming IRCT report on children and torture in the Philippines, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Most children are detained for allegations involving throwing stones at Israeli troops. Some are as young as 12, and can be detained for months without access to a lawyer or their parents. A majority of those detained faced verbal threats or harassment, physical abuse, interrogation by officials, and were blindfolded and restrained. Read the full report here [PDF].

Mexico:
Human rights group in Mexico have celebrated a recent Supreme Court ruling that military human rights violations may be turned over to civilian, rather than military, courts. “The Supreme Court ruled Thursday to send the case of Jethro Ramses Sanchez, a 27-year-old auto mechanic who authorities say was tortured and killed by soldiers at a military base last year, to civilian court,” reports The Washington Post. Human rights groups say this ruling may be a blow to the consistent impunity for military human rights violations in Mexico.

Argentina:
Several
torture cases in Argentina have been widely reported in the media recently. And just this week, a report emerged that there have been as many as 7,000 human rights violations in Argentine prisons. Some point to the lack of reform in the prison system since the military junta that ended in the 1980s and that was marked by several thousand extra-judicial killings and torture, the so-called ‘dirty war’. Read about a visit to many of the sites of the ‘dirty war’ by IRCT’s Brita Sydhoff here.

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Tear gas: Is it a violation of human rights?

A recent European Court of Human Rights case finds that the excessive use of tear gas, especially when people are detained or deprived of their liberty, can amount to inhuman and degrading treatment

Police officers fire tear gas on Tahrir Square protesters in November 2011. Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy, available via Flickr through Creative Commons License.

The use of tear gas by law enforcement officials against demonstrators and detainees is widely documented as a method of crowd control.  However, examples of its excessive use are occurring with alarming frequency, for example recently in Bahrain, the West Bank, Turkey and Honduras where the use of tear gas has lead to civilian deaths.

A number of IRCT member centres have been campaigning against the use of tear gas in their countries and in particular its use against peaceful demonstrators and people deprived of liberty which many human rights organisations consider amounts to torture or ill treatment.

The Centre for Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture and their Relatives (CPTRT) in Honduras has also raised its concerns about the use of tear gas by security forces, particularly in places of detention and against those demonstrating, such as the demonstrations that took place against changes to education in March 2011. . The issue was raised by the CPTRT during the recent visit of the UN Sub-Committee for the Prevention of Torture (SPT) to Honduras and the SPT confirmed that it would look into the issue.  The CPTRT also intends to ask the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights for its view on the use of tear gas in prisons and against demonstrators.

The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) has expressed its concerns over the use of such gases in law enforcement. The CPT considers that:

“… [P]epper spray [tear gas] is a potentially dangerous substance and should not be used in confined spaces. Even when used in open spaces the CPT has serious reservations; if exceptionally it needs to be used, there should be clearly defined safeguards in place. For example, persons exposed to pepper spray should be granted immediate access to a medical doctor and be offered an antidote. Pepper spray should never be deployed against a prisoner who has already been brought under control.” (CPT/Inf (2009) 25, paragraph 79)

The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TİHV/HRFT) has vast experience in treating people who have been exposed to tear gas in five of its treatment and rehabilitation centres for torture survivors in Ankara, Istanbul, Izmir, Diyarbakir and Adana. The HRFT decided to conduct further scientific studies on the physical effects of tear gas as its wide use by security forces during demonstrations; it has caused severe injuries and in some cases deaths from exploding bomb canisters and the inhalation of toxic chemicals used in the gas.

The HRFT (Istanbul Centre) has studied 64 cases of people affected by tear gas and evaluated the early side-effects of these chemical agents in these cases based on age, gender, psychological findings as well as other injuries. The research shows that complaints and physical side effects caused as a result of exposure to the tear gas chemicals were highest during the first three days following exposure.

The HRFT considers that “tear gas is a weapon derived from chemical agents” and that “the use of these agents amounts to torture and ill-treatment when used against people whose liberty has been deprived.”

A tear gas canister and rubber bullets used in Egypt to quell protests in June 2011. Photo by Maggie Osama, available via Flickr through Creative Commons License.

The recent decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in the case of Ali Güneş fully supports the HRFT’s position on this issue.

In the recent case of ALİ GÜNEŞ v. TURKEY (Application no. 9829/07), the ECtHR found for the first time that the use of tear gas against people whose liberty has been restricted can amount to a violation of Article 3 ECHR. The Court stressed that there can be no justification for the use of tear gas against an individual who has already been taken under the control of the law enforcement authorities.  Ali Güneş, a high school teacher and member of the Trade Union of Education and Science Workers (Eğitim-Sen), was in one of the thirteen allocated areas where demonstrations were allowed to take place during the 2004 NATO summit in Istanbul. He complained about having been sprayed with tear gas by police officers, even after being arrested. The incident was widely reported in the national press and Mr Güneş was able to produce as evidence a photograph published in the daily newspaper Sabah showing him between two police officers who were holding him by the arms, and one of whom was spraying his nose and mouth with gas at very close range.  He also relied on medical reports which showed that his eyes had been affected by the gas.

In its judgment, the Court referred to previous cases in which it had considered the use of tear gas for the purposes of law enforcement, and where it had recognised that its use can produce effects such as respiratory problems, nausea, vomiting, irritation of the respiratory tract, irritation of the tear ducts and eyes, spasms, chest pain, dermatitis and allergies.  Given the effects the gases cause and the potential health risks they entail, the Court considered that “the unwarranted spraying of [Mr Güneş’s] face in the circumstances described must have subjected him to intense physical and mental suffering and was such as to arouse in him feelings of fear, anguish and inferiority capable of humiliating and debasing him”. By spraying him in such circumstances the police officers subjected Mr Güneş to inhuman and degrading treatment within the meaning of Article 3 of the Convention.

The IRCT welcomes the clear indication from the European Court of Human Rights that tear gas should not under any circumstance be used against persons whose liberty has been restricted and considers that this sends an important signal to countries in the region that the excessive use of tear gas by security forces should not be condoned.

The outcome of the Turkish case should be of vital interest to other regions, where the oppressive use of tear gas is being used with alarming frequency, such as in Bahrain and Honduras.  As the CPT has stated, clearly defined safeguards should be put in place where the use of tear gas is required.  In addition, further protection against the excessive use of tear gas should be supported by more scientific research on the long-term effects of exposure to it, in particular to build on previous studies, such as those carried out by the HRFT and the US-based organisation Physicians for Human Rights.

The decision of the European Court in the case against Turkey, supported by an increased understanding of the long-term health effects of tear gas exposure, will give civil society organisations the increased ammunition needed to campaign against the excessive use of tear gas by law enforcement authorities.

Lea aquí (.DOC) la versión española

Rachel is interning at the IRCT with the Advocacy and Legal Team after completing her European Master’s in Human Rights and Democratisation; she is also a Qualified Solicitor.

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Combatting torture in trying contexts

In Palestine and Israel despite tough conditions, skilled and hardworking organisations are working to combat torture

By Lars Døssing Rosenmeier

Just before the end of 2011, I visited the IRCT member centre the Treatment and Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture (TRC) in Ramallah, Palestine. The visit was technically a “monitoring and coordination mission” under the European Commission-supported NSA project. TRC is a partner to this project that has now progressed into the third and final year.

What we call the ‘NSA’ is a project to improve the skills of 11 rehabilitation centres through exchange of knowledge between them and other IRCT member centres. If one centre excels, for example, in psycho-social rehabilitation or UN advocacy, they can share their knowledge and skills through seminars or other trainings.

As I had heard from other Secretariat staff before going to TRC (and can now personally confirm), TRC has a great management team leading a group of well trained psychotherapists. Therefore, TRC has not only taken part in NSA project activities aimed at building their own staff capacity, but has also been able to act as peer supervisors and trainers visiting other centres to share their experiences, knowledge and best practices on treatment and rehabilitation of torture survivors. The main objective of my visit was to discuss the project activities of the last two years and plan for the current.

When we visit our members, we also always try to visit current and potential donors as well as other international or local partners to strengthen existing relationships and build new ones. As the NSA project, of which I am the deputy manager, is mainly supported by the European Commission, it was only natural that I had a longer meeting at The Office of the European Union Representative to the West Bank and Gaza Strip to discuss both the work of TRC and the progress of the NSA project. I also met briefly with representatives of OHCHR and of the Dutch Foreign Ministry and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation as I was lucky enough to attend and even deliver a short speech at TRC’s celebration of the UN Human Rights Day. During this event, Palestinian Authority Minister of Justice Dr. Ali Khashan promised to facilitate better cooperation with local human rights organisations both in general and on specific cases. This was in dialogue with Samih Muhsen, of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, who in his speech had stated that Palestinian security personnel widely (to some extent even systematically) practice torture with impunity.

Most TRC clients are victims of torture or inhumane, cruel or degrading treatment at the hands of the Israeli occupation and the Israeli security forces, who are responsible for an overwhelming amount of severe human rights violations. Another important partner of the IRCT in the area is the Israeli NGO the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI). The IRCT and PCATI work together on cases of torture with IRCT providing (psycho) forensic expertise and documentation, and PCATI’s legal team pursuing cases of torture in the Israeli judicial system to bring perpetrators to justice and advocate for victims.

While meeting with PCATI in Jerusalem, I was fortunate enough to also join the legal team for a case in the Israeli Supreme Court. This case was also included in our FEAT project as part of the IRCT-PCATI collaboration on cases described above.

I sat in the benches as the legal team argued in front of the Supreme Court that a criminal investigation should be opened into the torture case, and that the State Attorney had failed to live up to his responsibility of properly looking into opening an investigation. Disappointingly for us and likely devastating for the victim, the court did not intervene. Instead the State Attorney Office’s decision to refer the assessment of whether or not to open an investigation to the Israel Security Agency (also known as the Shin Bet) internal investigator, rather than to look into the issue itself, was upheld. As a result, the case may only see a closed internal inquiry rather than an actual impartial investigation, which Israel is obliged to ensure under international law and which it has failed to ensure in this and every one of the over 700 other complaints of torture submitted in the last decade.

It is obvious that PCATI is doing very important and very difficult work as they must overcome obstacles placed in front of them by a politically biased judicial system, as is also the experience in many other countries where our centres or collaborating legal organisations pursue cases.

There are some common difficulties that face human rights work in Palestine and around the world that can be mitigated more easily. This includes a profound obstacle currently faced by not only TRC but also many other of our member centres in Europe, North America and around the world: a lack of funding for the provision of their rehabilitation services. It is painful to see that a well functioning centre such as TRC has in the last six months been hit hard by a batch of bad luck, with several key donors cutting down funding at the same time. The IRCT and its member centres are of course extremely grateful for any funding we receive, but we must also stress that the fight against torture and the rehabilitation of torture victims is too important to become a victim of budget cuts. The consequences for TRC as an organization is serious cuts in staffing for at least a large part of 2012, meaning that far less clients can benefit from their crucial services in this period.

I am confident that TRC will in the long term again function at full capacity, but in the meantime the untreated suffering is immense and it is worrying to see the funding difficulties facing well run rehabilitation centres of torture, as human rights work dealing with torture is especially difficult to fundraise for.

  Lars assists the membership team and serves as deputy manager of the NSA project. The NSA project is supported by the European Commission.

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