Posts Tagged UNCAT
In our Fighting Torture series, we speak with people from around the world and from a number of professions who work with and support survivors of torture. What does their work mean to them and what are the biggest challenges they see in the anti-torture and rehabilitation movement?
Jens Modvig was unanimously elected as the Chair of the UN Committee against Torture in April 2016. He has worked in the torture rehabilitation sector for more than 20 years, from his time as a medical doctor to his current role as Director of the Health Department at DIGNITY, the Danish Institute Against Torture. We find out what challenges he has faced in his new role and how the Committee relies on having close relationships with civil society.
Q: How long have you worked in the field of torture rehabilitation and human rights?
I started working for RCT (Rehabilitation and Research Centre) /IRCT (International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims) – RCT is now DIGNITY – in 1994 so it has been more than 20 years. It has been a great privilege for me to use my professional background in such an important field. I do not think that many people are as blessed as I am to have such a meaningful occupation.
Q: Can you describe a typical day in the office/field for you?
When I am in DIGNITY, I mainly work with matters related to medical knowledge of torture. This could be drafting or reviewing research papers or manuals for health professionals. When I am in Geneva for sessions of the Committee against Torture, we are in session all day, considering reports from state parties through an interactive dialogue with a delegation from the country in question.
These sessions are public and webcasted. During this session, which unfortunately prevents me from attending the IRCT Scientific Symposium in Mexico, we consider reports from Sri Lanka, Turkmenistan, Armenia, Monaco, Ecuador, Namibia, Finland and Cabo Verde. In between sessions I have meetings, internal or with ambassadors from countries being considered, or I prepare for the next day.
In the field, I most often engage in training or awareness sessions to build capacity or raise awareness of the problem of torture and the need to prevent torture and rehabilitate victims.
Q: Can you give us an example of how you have seen your work make a difference?
In a recent meeting in Ghana organised by the Convention against Torture initiative, initiated by the governments of Chile, Denmark, Indonesia, Ghana and Morocco, representatives of Kenya and Uganda explained that they had engaged in large legislative processes to have anti-torture legislation in place, and in both instances, this was prompted by recommendations by the Committee against Torture after consideration of these two countries.
Another example is when NGOs have assisted the Committee with a country review, for instance, by submitting a shadow report or having a private meeting with the Committee ahead of the public meeting, in some cases the NGOs fear reprisals once the session is completed. In such cases, I may issue a public warning to the state party delegation that such measures are unacceptable and will be reacted to immediately. In these cases I believe that the NGOs are just a tiny bit more secure, just as they often solicit and appreciate such messages from the Committee.
Q: How has this work changed since you started?
I think the anti-torture movement in general has been much better organised, and the professional level of fighting torture has increased considerably.
Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the torture rehabilitation sector?
The biggest challenge is to get state parties to the Convention against Torture to assume their responsibilities laid down in article 14 of the Convention, i.e. the right to rehabilitation. If they did, we would not have the symptomatic problem of funding difficulties for the rehabilitation centres, and the sector would thrive, to the benefit of the victims.
In this regard, the IRCT Scientific Symposium a unique opportunity for the movement to take stock of its scientific achievements. In my opinion, scientific achievements are of great importance to the movement and give strength and legitimacy to the anti-torture movement as a whole, but are also a way of creating respect and maybe even protection for the individual NGOs that deal with torture victims.
In addition, it is clear that the right to rehabilitation is not enforceable in all state parties to the Convention against Torture and a lot needs to be done in this respect. The Committee is certainly working on this during its dialogue with state parties, but I believe that state representatives who will participate in the Symposium will obtain a much deeper understanding of why rehabilitation is needed and necessary and why states should ensure that the right to rehabilitation is available to all victims of torture.
How important is the CAT’s relationship with civil society organisations?
The Committee against Torture relies on close collaboration with civil society, particularly in the field of alternative reporting. If we only had the official government reports available when carrying out our country reviews, we could easily be left with an incomplete or even wrong picture. Civil society organisations like IRCT members often provide crucial information to the Committee, often based on statistics derived from their clinical work with survivors of torture; and the IRCT plays a crucial role in supporting its members and facilitating their dialogue with the Committee.
Q: What are your hopes for the future?
Obviously I hope that the anti-torture movement, both the civil society based and the intergovernmental work gains much more strength and awareness so that we in fact are able to effectively fight torture.
Q: According to various surveys, many people do not think torture is such a big problem; that it is a thing of the past; or some even think that it is necessary. What would you say to them?
Try to imagine yourself in a situation where you were unjustly accused of terrorism. What would be important to you?
Defending human rights in Russian republic Chechnya is not without its risks. Local IRCT member the Committee to Prevent Torture has been the target of endless acts of violence, discrimination and harassment because of its anti-torture work. Just last month, a group of journalists and a couple of the Committee’s staff were beaten up by masked men and the organisation’s offices were broken into. Despite international human rights organisations calling for a proper investigation, the perpetrators are yet to be brought to justice.
Speaking up against human rights violations in Russia comes at a price most people are not willing to pay. Non-governmental organisations critical of the government are being targeted and persecuted on a regular basis. International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) member and local NGO, Committee to Prevent Torture (CPT), has had its office in the Chechen capital, Grozny set on fire and broken in to, while its staff and founder are repeatedly harassed and intimidated.
Last month’s brutal attack on CPT staff and a small group of journalists, investigating human rights abuses in the region, attracted the attention of rights groups and media outlets around the world. According to the IRCT, these attacks reflect a reality where human rights defenders and journalists are systematically targeted because of their work.
Offices have been raided, activists have been arrested and organisations fined. In some cases, prominent human rights defenders have even been killed, with no one charged with their murders.
This level of impunity in not only Chechnya, but all of Russia is of great concern to local and international rights organisations. In its periodic review of Russia, the United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) brought up reports from several non-governmental organisations of the widespread practice of torture in Russia and the lack of genuine efforts by the government to investigate the vast number of allegations of such crimes.
In Chechnya, the perpetrators of the attacks against CPT and the journalists are still free despite the spokesperson of President Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Peskov, calling the attacks “absolutely outrageous” and encouraging local law enforcement to “take the most effective measures to find the perpetrators, in order to ensure the safety of human rights defenders and journalists”. But even with Moscow condemning the attacks, there is nothing to indicate that they will stop.
In an interview with The Guardian, the leader of the organisation Igor Kalyapin said: “We won’t have anyone staying the night in Chechnya any more, it’s clearly too dangerous. If they can attack me, a member of the president’s human rights council, outside the poshest hotel in the city, then it’s clear that there are no limits. But we can’t pull out altogether. We all have to take a risk. There is no choice. We have two or three court hearings a week there. As long as people want our help there, we will have a presence there.”
The events of last month make it clear that the public need organisations like CPT to continue their work in a country where human rights violations are widespread.
The Committee to Prevent Torture is currently one of more than a hundred Russian NGOs that have been labelled as a ‘foreign agent’ by the government. In 2012, the Russian parliament adopted the law, requiring NGOs to register as “foreign agents” if they engaged in “political activity” and received foreign funding. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), in Russia “foreign agent” can be interpreted only as “spy” or “traitor,” and there is little doubt that the law aims to demonise and marginalise independent advocacy groups. Groups that a court has found responsible for failing to register as a “foreign agent” may be fined up to 500,000 rubles (over US$16,000), and their leaders personally – up to 300,000 rubles (approximately $10,000).
(Source: Human Rights Watch)
Guest blogger Aisha Maniar of the London Guantánamo Campaign writes about a controversial counter-terrorism bill in India that, if passed, could increase the risk of torture and other ill-treatment of prisoners.
On 31 March, the government of the state of Gujarat, in Western India, passed a controversial counter-terrorism bill for the fourth time in 12 years.
First passed in 2003 under the auspices of the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, when he was Chief Minister of the state, the Gujarat government now hopes that Modi’s current status will help the bill acquire the presidential assent required for it to become law – something that has been denied three times already.
One of the most controversial provisions of this latest amendment of the bill, now called the Gujarat Control of Terrorism and Organised Crime Bill (previously, only organised crime was mentioned in the title), is clause 16, which would allow confessions made to a police officer at or above the rank of superintendent admissible evidence in court.
Clause 16 does not contain any safeguards against fears that it may be used to obtain confessions coerced through torture or other inhumane treatment. The last time the bill was approved and sent for presidential assent in 2009, the president’s office asked for this clause to be removed.
According to Amnesty International India, the lack of adequate safeguards in clause 16 “will almost certainly increase the risk of torture and other ill-treatment of detainees.”
In addition to clause 16, the Gujarat bill includes a very broad definition of torture and affords immunity against prosecution of police or government officials acting in “good faith”. It is modelled on a similar law from the neighbouring state of Maharashtra on organised crime, which contains the same provision. However, this bill differs in its widening of the scope to include counter-terrorism, harking back to controversial old counter-terrorism laws. According to journalist Manoj Mitta, this clause “threatens to serve as a legal cover for torture”.
India is still to ratify the UN Convention against Torture (CAT) and the use of torture in Indian prisons is rife, particularly where prisoners are accused of or convicted of terrorism-related offences. A 2011 Human Rights Watch report on the treatment of terrorism suspects in India states that “much of the worst abuse” was committed by the Gujarat police. In the first decade of this century, more than 100 people died in custody in Gujarat, usually as a result of torture.
Just weeks after the Gujarat government passed the bill in mid-April, the Gujarat police sought to prevent the release of a book detailing the torture suffered by a man who had been arrested under the earlier repealed counter-terrorism law. Tortured into confessing, along with five others, the man was convicted and sentenced to death in 2006; he was acquitted of all charges in 2014 by the Indian Supreme Court and released from prison after 11 years.
An Amnesty International survey from 2014 found that 74% of respondents in India – the highest rate along with China – believe “torture can sometimes be justiﬁed to gain information that may protect the public.” Both widespread and widely accepted in India, such a law would only further sanction its use and could lead to an increase of the practice. Amnesty International India has called for similar existing laws in other states to be repealed immediately.
Speaking of the Gujarat bill, Shemeer Babu, Programmes Director at Amnesty International India, said, “Instead of weakening criminal procedure safeguards, authorities should be giving state police the training, resources and autonomy they need to prevent and solve crimes.”
And besides prevention, the government should do more to treat those who have fallen victims to torture in the country, which has one of the highest incidences of torture in the world. Torture is a complex problem that requires comprehensive solutions.
On 23 April, the state governor of Gujarat sent the bill to the Indian President Pranab Mukherjee for his assent. The opposition party in the state has said it will ask the President not to approve it. A decision is likely in May.
The use of torture is a contentious topic that has caused a myriad of heated arguments between those who believe the practice can be justified and those who say that it is a serious human rights violation that can never be tolerated. As a result, many myths and misconceptions have sprung up about torture, poisoning the debate.
In this blog we debunk 7 of the most common myths about torture.
Torture works and there are no better alternatives
In the wake of last year’s release of the CIA torture report, there has been an ongoing and toxic debate over the use of torture. Does it work? Is it really that bad? The defenders of torture argue that had it not been for the CIA’s torture program, cities like London would have been hit by terrorist attacks. They also claim that at times, torture is a necessary evil to keep us all safe.
These are just some of many misconceptions about torture. Not only do we now know that what took place at Guantanamo Bay actually led to false confessions and stories, history also tells us that torture is not an effective means of acquiring intelligence.
Torture always leaves visible scars and is easy to document
That is not always the case. Unlike the infamous torture methods used in the Middle Ages, states today are trying very hard to hide their crimes. Thus, many torture methods leave little or no physical marks. Some examples are mock executions, temperature manipulation, sensory torture (noise and light), waterboarding (mock drowning), threats of harm to friends or family, and sleep deprivation. Increasingly sophisticated methods are harder to document, and the effects they produce more likely to be invisible, thus contributing to impunity.
Torture is anything awful done to a person
While the CIA ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ are torture, getting up early in the morning for work and doing the dishes is not. The UN Convention against Torture includes a widely accepted definition of torture. Torture always involves:
- severe pain or suffering, physical or mental
- extraction of information or a confession, punishment, intimidation or coercion, or discrimination of any kind
- a public official or person in an official capacity (the perpetrator)
Torture is a thing of the past
Most people connect torture to the Middle Ages and some have visited medieval torture museums to learn about this ancient practice. Back then, torture was considered a legitimate way to extract confessions, punish offenders, and perform executions. It turns out, torture is not history. The IRCT network of torture rehabilitation clinics treated more than 100,000 victims of torture according to its last census. Amnesty recently reported that more than 140 countries around the world still use torture. And in many countries, police officers are ignorant about the fact that torture constitutes a crime under international law and humane alternatives to torture exist.
Torture is only used in war, in a few countries
There are constantly new cases of torture happening away from armed conflicts and war. As an example, police brutality or torture in detention are both serious problems in a great majority of countries. In fact, Amnesty International has in the past five years reported torture and abuse in more than 140 countries.
Torture victims are either criminals or terrorists
Anyone can be a victim of torture – children as well as adults, young as well as old, religious as well as atheists, intellectuals and the uneducated alike.
Nobody is immune, although members of a particular political, religious, ethnic group or minority are at higher risk of being targets of government-endorsed violence. Frequent victims include politicians, union leaders, journalists, health professionals, human rights defenders, people in detention or prison, members of ethnic minorities, and student leaders.
Another large group of victims are poor people. Poverty makes people vulnerable to abuses and leaves them without the ways and means of defending their rights.
Not all forms of torture are bad
Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person to obtain information, punish, intimidate or coerce is never justified. There is no such thing as one method being less harmful than the other.
All forms of torture are horrific violations of human rights – including beating, electric shocks, stretching, submersion, suffocation, burns, rape and sexual assault, isolation, threats, humiliation, mock executions, mock amputations, and witnessing the torture of others.
The consequences of torture — any torture — reach far beyond immediate pain and can leave long-term scars on the victims.
Around the world, conflicts and humanitarian crises result in migratory flows of millions of asylum seekers, refugees and internally displaced persons every year. According to health professionals and researchers, as many as 35% of refugees worldwide could be victims of torture.
It used to be that those lucky enough to be near a torture rehabilitation centre were able to seek treatment, but in many places the number of victims of torture has now reached a point where the need for rehabilitation exceeds the services available.
To support victims of torture, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) last year adopted and promoted a policy on the Right to Rehabilitation in accordance with the United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT) Comment 3.
The policy highlights the obligation of states to ensure that victims of torture have free and prompt access to rehabilitation services. Sadly, as the rehabilitation sector is facing a funding crisis, this commitment is more important than ever.
For many rehabilitation centres, the future is not looking bright. They operate in situations where their fate is continuously uncertain and because of a reduction in funding, some of them are even at risk of closing.
Yet, getting states to fully commit to the rehabilitation of victims of torture is not an easy task. This is something that becomes particularly apparent in countries where torture is carried out by the state, and where health professionals and rehabilitation service providers are constantly under threat.
Whether it is doctors being arrested and tortured simply for trying to save lives in Syria or rehabilitation centres in Latin America being exposed to threats and other intimidation tactics, it is clear that access to health and in particular, the right to rehabilitation is far from a reality in many parts of the world.
So how do we face these challenges?
An important step is to change the way that everyone from states and governments to the people they govern perceive torture and rehabilitation for torture victims. Those who believe that the practice of torture can be justified must be reminded that it is a serious human rights violation that can never be tolerated.
In addition, decision makers need to understand that rehabilitation should not be a service provided mostly by civil society organisations if and when international agencies and philanthropists decide to fund it. In fact, each and every state has a responsibility to ensure that torture victims everywhere have free and prompt access to rehabilitation services.
Without this change in attitude, political will and appropriate funding, we cannot guarantee that victims of torture receive the rehabilitation services they need.
And without offering rehabilitation to victims of torture, we are denying hundreds of thousands of people worldwide their last and only hope to reclaim their life and dignity, lost at the hands of perpetrators.
Despite ongoing international efforts to eliminate the practice of torture, it is not a question of whether torture still takes place, but rather where in the world it is still practised and how prevalent it is. Currently, more than 40 states across the globe have failed to ratify the UN Convention against Torture (UNCAT) and in many of these countries, human rights defenders are raising the alarm, alerting to the constant flow of cases involving torture and ill treatment.
If anything, the recent report on CIA’s use of torture shows that this crime is more prevalent than most of us probably thought. The US is a signatory to the Convention against Torture, yet its own intelligence agency relied on the practice of torture as an integral part of its interrogation technique.
If a country that has committed to respect the UN Convention still allows for the practice of torture, then what is the status in the 40 something countries that are still to adopt it?
We have looked at three of these countries. Despite facing very different problems, they all have one thing in common: none of them has managed to tackle the problem of torture.
As a country with a population of more than a billion, it is not hard to see what an overpowering task it is to eliminate torture. Set on making the country an industrial superpower and creating more jobs, overcoming the enormity of its human rights problems is not an immediate priority – economic reform is.
Nonetheless, it is very worrying that a large number of torture cases in India happen at the hand of the police, and often while the victim is in custody. From 2001 to 2010, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) recorded 14,231 deaths in police and judicial custody in India. The vast majority of these deaths can be ascribed to torture.
Only in recent weeks, newspapers have reported on the city of Chennai, where three police officers are currently being investigated for sexual torture of a 19-year old at the local police station. There is also the police commissioner in Delhi who has had to deny claims that the police has used torture to extract confessions. And in Calcutta, the West Bengal Government faces heat over alleged police torture of a woman.
According to various rights organisations, these stories are just the tip of the iceberg in a country that still has a long way to go despite its commitments to tackle the most prevalent human rights abuses. While the country has taken positive steps by strengthening laws protecting women and children, its reluctance to hold state officials to account for torture and other abuses continues to foster a culture of corruption and impunity.
To many, Fiji is the perfect holiday destination. With its white sandy beaches and exotic palm trees, this tropical archipelago in the South Pacific could easily be mistaken as paradise on earth. But even paradise has a dark side and in the case of Fiji this dark side involves a poor human rights record.
In recent years, there have been numerous allegations of the use of torture by state officials.
In March 2013, a video was posted on the internet showing two prisoners being badly beaten and humiliated by state security officials. Failure by the Fijian authorities to investigate the case has raised red flags about a culture of impunity for police and security forces.
Following last year’s elections, Fiji had its second review by the UN Human Rights Council which, among other things, urged the state to amend repressive decrees that put severe restrictions on freedom of expression, promote women’s rights and ratify the UNCAT.
Despite these recommendations and similar calls from various human rights organisations, the government is still to take action.
In the meantime, cases of police violence and torture involving state officials continue to emerge.
Central African Republic
For more than two years, a violent, sectarian civil war has left Central African Republic (CAR) paralysed, prompting rights organisations to warn of a human rights crisis spiralling out of control.
In January 2015, UN’s International Commission of Inquiry on the Central African Republic, reported that crimes against humanity have been widely committed by all parties to the ongoing conflict. The Commission strongly recommended that accountability mechanisms be put in place to tackle the ‘cycle of impunity’ in the CAR.
However, recognising that the CAR Government simply does not have the resources nor the political incentive to bring the perpetrators to justice, the Commission has urged the international community to step up and fund a tribunal to prosecute those who have committed crimes against humanity.
These recommendations illustrate how vital it is for CAR to ratify the UNCAT. Until this happens, violence and torture continue to be rampant in the war-torn country.
What difference can the UN Convention against Torture make?
In the first instance, the UNCAT is one of the most important international human rights
instruments in the work against torture which outlines the rights of an individual, outlaws torture, and promotes respect for the human rights of an individual.
When a UN member state has become a party to the Convention, the government of that
country is accountable under international law to take action to prevent torture and to support the victims when torture takes place.
According to the Association for the Prevention of Torture, “the Convention against Torture requires that all States, and each of us, remain vigilant to the risks of torture. This is what makes it so relevant in 2014, thirty years after its adoption.”
You can read more about the countries that have ratified the UNCAT by clicking on this link. For comprehensive profiles on each UN member state, the United Nations website provides a full country list.
Guest blogger, Aisha Maniar of the London Guantánamo Campaign takes us through the longest-running criminal trial in modern Russian history and describes how the use of torture to extract confessions remains widespread.
More than 30 years since the UN Convention against Torture entered into force, torture remains a regular practice in many states, with impunity. A recently concluded trial in the Russian Federation shows how prevalent reliance on torture evidence remains in some regions.
On 13 October 2005, groups of armed men carried out attacks on public institutions in Nalchik, the capital city of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) in the volatile North Caucasus region of the Russian Federation. In the ensuing violence, which was quelled the following day, more than 150 people died, mainly attackers, and more than 100 were injured. Two militant groups claimed responsibility for the attacks.
It nonetheless took more than nine years to reach a verdict in what became the longest-running criminal trial in modern Russian history, with the largest number of defendants. On 23 December 2014, guilty verdicts were delivered against all 58 defendants in a trial tainted by torture evidence and efforts to obstruct the legal process, resulting in changes to the Russian criminal law; some commentators and human rights NGOs compared it to a show trial worthy of the Stalinist era.
In the days following the attacks, more than 2000 people were arrested; some were forced from their homes by armed police and others handed themselves in for questioning. By the end of the year, 59 remained in detention (one of the defendants died before the case went to trial).
In the week after their arrest, stories and images of their torture at the Nalchik pre-trial detention centre (SIZO) started to emerge. The images quickly circulated in the media causing an outrage which led to official admission that the suspects were tortured but the claims were never investigated. At least one of the defendants has a pending claim at the European Court of Human Rights for the torture he suffered.
The suspects were tortured into signing confessions that were self-incriminating and that incriminated others. In some cases, they did not know the persons they were incriminating. All charged with at least ten offences under the Russian Criminal Code, at trial, many withdrew their confessions, claiming they had been tortured into making them. Those who admitted involvement in the attacks did not plead guilty to all the charges against them. Indeed, many defendants had credible alibis and witnesses to prove it. One defendant was at university in another town at the time, which his teacher and classmates could vouch for; he was nonetheless given a 14-year sentence.
The torture and abuse did not end there; since 2005, and now pending appeal of their sentences, the defendants have been held at the Nalchik SIZO in cramped, unhygienic conditions which are inadequate for short-term pre-trial detention, let alone almost a decade. In addition, beatings by guards are not infrequent as well as prisoners being placed in solitary confinement as arbitrary punishment. On occasion, the defendants have gone on hunger strike in protest. Denied adequate medical attention, the past decade has taken its toll on the health of many defendants, who were healthy young men when they were jailed. Investigating these further claims of abuse has been hampered by the harassment of lawyers and restricted access to them.
Inside the courtroom, the trial was delayed when the defendants were denied a jury trial; instead, changes were made to the Russian Criminal Code retrospectively to restrict jury trials in such cases, thereby leaving the decision on the admissibility of torture evidence to a panel of three judges who passed the verdict. The dubious nature of the judgment is reflected in the fact that none of the four defendants caught with weapons in their possession were among the five given life sentences. More curiously, in a case hinging on the violent deaths of so many people, the murder charge was dropped against all the defendants, meaning that no one convicted in this case is responsible for the deaths. The implication of a former Guantánamo prisoner who lived just outside Nalchik in the attacks was used to justify the disproportionate response by the Russian authorities.
Amnesty International slammed the verdict as “a textbook case of criminal injustice, where the authorities manifestly refused to investigate allegations of torture, despite overwhelming evidence, and the defendants languished for nine years in pre-trial detention, all in violation of international law”. Human Rights Watch called on the authorities “to finally conduct effective and impartial investigations into the torture, hold those responsible to account, and immediately withdraw as evidence any coerced statements by the defendants.”
Lyudmila Alexeyeva from the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group visited some of the defendants at the SIZO and was told by them, “you would have confessed too, if you had been through what we have had to go through.”
For more information on the case in English: https://onesmallwindow.wordpress.com/2014/12/31/creating-a-state-of-mass-terror-in-the-north-caucasus/
Lying on the eastern Black Sea coast, lying north-west of Georgia and the Caucasus mountains and south-west of Russia, there is an area which does not exist as a country to many except to most of those who live there.
Abkhazia and its state of recognition is a key issue in the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict. Formed out of the dissolution of the Soviet Union through the 1980s and into the nineties, Abkhazia is recognised as an independent state only by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, the partially recognised state of South Ossetia, and the similarly unrecognised Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh regions.
To the United Nations Abkhazia is part of Georgia – a part which Georgia has no control over despite the government of Abkhazia operating, in exile, in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.
This conflict over recognition, and the geographic area as a whole, is now decades old. The War in Abkhazia, which began in 1992 and ended in military defeat of the Georgian army in 1993, granted independence of Abkhazia but also paved the way for the mass ethnic cleansing of Georgians living in Abkhazia.
On 27 September 1993, 21 years ago this week, a Russia-backed campaign began to displace and kill Georgian settlers in the Abkhazia region following the takeover of the now-capital city of Sukhumi. Approximately 250,000 Georgians were displaced and 30,000 were killed in the ethnic cleansing campaign across the region.
“The war was horrifying,” says Vaja today in a story published by the IRCT. “I saw so many people die, and so many of my friends were hurt. Two of my friends died in my arms during the time I served. The trauma made me unstable and became too much for me, so I turned to drugs. This landed me with a prison sentence in 2005.”
Despite efforts for peace in 1994, the situation remains tense and no resolve has been found. There is still damage from the war and from the genocide which has caused chronic trauma in the minds of many. For Vaja it is not just challenging to overcome wartime trauma but also the trauma which evolved from post-war torture.
While Vaja’s psychological trauma was obvious, physical torture was not apparent throughout the war or its aftermath. Four-and-a-half years in a Georgian prison changed that.
“I was beaten several times. I was beaten so hard, even in my first week in the cell, that my forehead was crushed,” Vaja decribes.
“The crushing sound of my forehead cracking was so loud. All I remember was blood pouring from my skull. I had been in war – I had seen fights, conflict, pain and death. But I had not seen anyone enjoy taking pleasure in causing pain. It was frightening to witness.”
Released in 2013, some 2,800 days after his original alleged four-year sentence, Vaja is still struggling with his wartime flashbacks and his torture.
“To this day I have flashbacks and nightmares, not just about my time in the war, but about my time in the prison during that period,” Vaja explains.
“But my experiences still trouble me. It will live with me my whole life.”
Today Vaja overcomes his trauma of war and torture thanks to assistance from IRCT member the Georgian Center for Psychosocial and Medical Rehabilitation of torture Victims (GRCT). Their help has aided him in owning a café and becoming a leader for archaeological expeditions.
“The journey to overcome torture is tough, but you can learn to live life to the fullest and move past your experiences,” Vaja concludes.
Over the past month many blogs have focused on the continuing involvement, direct or indirect, of the US in torture across the world.
As continued pressure grows on the US to release in full the CIA torture report, which highlights the extent of torture perpetrated by the CIA against terror suspects post-9/11, we reminded critics of the CIA to also remember that the torture methods and devices were designed by doctors – doctors who have a duty to heal, not harm. While the CIA role cannot be understated, the role of medical personnel in designing torture must be accounted for also.
Overseas, we joined hundreds of human rights organisations in calling for the US military to be held accountable for the deaths and torture of Afghani civilians and for better practices to ensure that families of the dead are made aware of the circumstances of death immediately. Currently many families simply do not know the true fate of their loved ones. This blindness prevent them not only knowing the truth, but also accessing justice and rehabilitation. This has to end.
Still in the US, but a more positive note, we looked at one program from the Harvard Program in Refugee Torture which is helping Cambodian survivors of torture overcome the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime.
Today Cambodians still come to terms with the Khmer Rouge regime, one which is still being brought to justice, most recently with the life sentences of Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, two figureheads of the regime.
For the survivors, justice only does so much. For many their families are destroyed and those who tortured them have already escaped punishment throughout the majority of their lives.
The article, which you can read here, is set to feature in the new edition of Torture Journal also.
Several floors under the busy Adlieh intersection in east Beirut, hundreds of people suffer harsh interrogation and torture in a makeshift detention centre.
It is a place unknown to many – thousands of commuters pass over the site every day. But it is a place very much present in the minds of refugees in the city, some of whom have spent time in this underground chamber.
It is this clandestine chamber that IRCT member centre Nassim for the rehabilitation of the victims of torture at the Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH) exposed and campaigned against on this year’s 26 June — the latest call of many to end torture and impunity in Lebanon.
Criticism of the Australian policy on detaining and deporting asylum seekers with little consideration for their wellbeing quietened over August. That was until Dr Peter Young, former director of IHMS mental health services, the company responsible for healthcare in all of Australia’s detention centres, boldly confronted what many have suspected for a long time: treatment in Australia’s asylum seeker detention centres is akin to torture.
We congratulated Dr Young for his honesty. Read more about it here.
The 143 IRCT members across the world are working tirelessly every day to ensure survivors of torture are rehabilitated, given access to reparations and justice and that torture is prevented within their contexts.
This month we focused on two centres in particular who are using art forms to rehabilitate torture survivors.
The first was the Accoglenza e Cura Vittime di Tortura (Vi.To.) project, funded via the European Union’s EIDHR (European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights) for IRCT member the Consiglio Italiano per I Rifugiati (CIR) (Italian Council for Refugees). Staff at the centre use theatre to help refugees and torture survivors overcome their experiences, build their self-esteem and teach them valuable new skills.
Secondly we focused on Freedom from Torture in the UK and their “Write to Life” project. A creative writing group the “Write to Life” project is one of the most powerful therapy programmes on offer. It has been meeting continuously every two-weeks for 12 years, has produced a formidable body of writing, and the participating torture survivors have reported that the group has aidedtheir rehabilitation – not bad for an initiative initially dismissed by some medical experts. You can read more about it here.
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The 26 June UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture is here. Organisations and human rights defenders across the globe are standing united right now to end impunity, the theme of this year’s 26 June campaign – and you can join them with your voice today.
Throughout the day World Without Torture’s Facebook and Twitter pages will be updated with the latest information on what groups across the globe are doing to mark this important day. Don’t forget to use the hashtags #26June and #NoMoreImpunity wherever you can.
You can see on our global map to find out exactly what IRCT centres are holding today – and in the coming weeks – to help create a world without torture.
Every day crimes of torture are committed across the globe and, in many of these cases, justice is never served – the perpetrators are still free and the victims are denied any access to rehabilitation.
But there is hope and organisations across the world are attempting to create a world without torture. You can read and share the full global reading here (also in French and Spanish) to get an idea of how the work we do is having a positive impact on the world, even if at times the fight against torture seems lengthy.
If you want to use any of our campaign materials still then please do so by clicking this link.
Here you will find all the posters, factsheets and statements relating to the 26 June.
What is happening right now?
Already organisations around the world have begun hosting their events: ASeTTS in Australia have hosted their panel meeting on how to fight impunity; Fora Penal in Venezuela are holding a forum on impunity; BCHRD in Bangladesh are standing united to promote the rights of torture victims; and APT have created an excellent video explaining what impunity is. These are just some of the hundreds of organisations who will mark the fight against impunity and torture today.
Those who tortured you to speak now want you silent.
Join us in the fight against impunity #NoMoreImpunity.